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8 May 2024

From Willy Vlautin to Corinne Fowler: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Bullet: A Memoir by Tom Lee and Bothy: In Search of Simple Shelter by Kat Hill.

By Michael Prodger, Will Dunn, Megan Kenyon and Sophie McBain

Our Island Stories by Corinne Fowler

Until 2020, Corinne Fowler was an academic specialising in empire and heritage largely out of the public eye. Then, with the appearance of a report she co-authored about the links between National Trust properties and colonialism, she found herself on the receiving end of high-octane invective flung by aggrieved traditionalists. They won’t be calmed by this book: Fowler hasn’t backed down and turns her attention to the ramifications of colonialism to be found in the British countryside.

A keen hiker, Fowler describes ten walks that bear the traces of the past. Her route around Islay and Jura unearths connections to Jamaica and the sugar and slave trades; in the Lake District she reminds the reader that Wordsworth’s brother John worked for the East India Company; while a stroll through a Hampshire estate belonging to the Baring family recalls the Louisiana Purchase, when in 1803 the US bought half a billion acres of land from the French with Francis Baring as the banker for the deal. In Fowler’s telling, these are eye-opening rambles. And along the way she notes that the landowners who dominated colonial peoples did something similar with rural communities at home too. 
By Michael Prodger
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25. Buy the book

The Horse by Willy Vlautin

The Horse – not the first of Willy Vlautin’s novels to feature a character with hooves – is reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt’s tragic ballad, “Tecumseh Valley”: it’s a tragic life story, told with a beauty and sincerity that make it more than just depressing. Lots of profoundly immiserating things happen to Al Ward, the novel’s protagonist – who is, like Vlautin, a guitarist and country singer – but there is a warmth and comfort in this story. Al, an alcoholic in his sixties, has spent his life playing in small bands in casinos and bars. He lives in a shack near a deserted mine in the high desert, writing songs about the other people in his life: fellow musicians, prostitutes, hopeless fraudsters – characters from the smoky, drunk world of a Tom Waits album. One morning, a horse that seems similarly ill-treated by the world appears outside his home, and does not move.

Vlautin’s previous novel, The Night Always Comes, is a brilliant, urgent read. This is slower and more wistful; a country song. What his novels share is that, while they portray poverty and hardship, they do so with dignity, and his characters are not simply victims of their fates. Like the horse, they endure.
By Will Dunn
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Bothy: In Search of Simple Shelter by Kat Hill

Following the collapse of a torrid relationship, the historian Kat Hill took to the mountains, finding solace in the solitude of the Scottish wilderness. There, she discovered a new community all congregating around a basic shelter known as a bothy. It is this research journey – one of historical and personal understanding – that forms the basis of Hill’s new book, Bothy.

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Dotted across the remote and mountainous areas of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, bothies are small shelters, which are usually left unlocked and are available to be used by anyone free of charge. Intrepid mountaineers will likely have seen one nestled on the side of a Scottish hill or Cumbrian fell.

In her book, Hill explores a miscellaneous range of British bothies, from a “fairy-tale cottage in the forest” in Wales, to an upmarket bothy in Athnamulloch in the Scottish Highlands which has its own website and is available for walkers to book. She thoughtfully couples history with memoir; these personal touches endear the reader to a life of bothy-dwelling. This is a warm, erudite work that neatly explores our relationship with wild landscapes and carefully considers our place within them.
By Megan Kenyon
William Collins, 400pp, £16.99. Buy the book

The Bullet: A Memoir by Tom Lee

In 2014 the novelist Tom Lee drove with his parents to the derelict site of Severalls, a former psychiatric hospital, just outside his home town of Colchester, where both his mother and father had spent time as patients. Severalls was shut in the Nineties, part of the mass closure of British asylums in favour of so-called care in the community. Like a lot of these grand hospitals, it was sold off to be developed into luxury housing. As Lee struggled with his own serious mental and physical health problems, he kept returning to Severalls, hoping to learn something more of its history – and his own psychological inheritance – before the site was transformed.

The Bullet offers a deeply moving personal account of what it is like to live with mental illness, the terror and the mystery of why and how we break – and it also grapples with the politics of mental health care. “Despite the PR homilies of government policy documents, over the last 50 years public responsibility for the mentally ill has been drastically and disastrously eroded,” Lee writes. This is undeniably true – but how can societies best respond to the scourge of mental illness? I wished Lee were bolder in answering this question.
By Sophie McBain
Granta, 208pp, £14.99. Buy the book

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll