|Duncton Wood by William Horwood
||[Jan. 21st, 2009|12:23 pm]
01/1/09 - Archiving Day
02/1/09 - 04/1/09 - Ill
05/1/09 - Editing
06/1/09 - 09/1/09 - Ill
10/1/09 - Art: OV TG Maximals
11/1/09 - 13/1/09 - Ill
14/1/09 - Art: OV Silverbolt sketches
15/1/09 - Ill
16/1/09 - Ill
17/1/09 - 1105 words on Stormhangar
18/1/09 - 974 words on Stormhangar
19/1/09 - Ill
Title - Duncton Wood
Author - William Horwood
ISBN - 0-07-030434-3
Duncton Wood is one of those awkward talking animal books that's a bit too mature to be considered young adult fare. Like Watership Down and The Cold Moons there is strong meat buried under the fluffy first impression that a talking animal book always gives, and in this case there is also rather too much theology for teenagers.
I can't think of a talking animal book I've read that wasn't a fantasy story in a fur coat, and the younger the target audience the more fantasy-based the events. Compare the roughly normal rabbits and badgers of Watership Down [the comparison, unfortunately, is inevitable] and The Cold Moons with the upright, clothed, sword-waving critters of the Redwall series, the flat-out magic of the Deptford Mice series and the medieval stylings of the [frankly bizarre] Welkin Weasels series. Duncton Wood lies fantasyward of the normal beyond-young-adult range, introducing fantasy elements on the sly. Indeed, it has more fantasy elements than the reality-based if somewhat insulated in interspecies niceness Farthing Wood series, and might well be considered a natural point of progression for someone who enjoyed the Farthing Wood series when they were twelve ... assuming said person was now at least eighteen. It must be said that the Duncton Chronicles - of which Duncton Wood is the first volume of six - have a muttered reputation for springing gore and unpleasantness on the reader. This must be a feature of the later volumes as there is only one really nasty moment in the whole book.
Duncton Wood covers the lives of its two lead characters - Bracken and Rebecca - from before their births until after their deaths. Going into the book it's hard to say what the plot actually is. Most talking animal books rely solidly on The Quest, or failing that and/or alongside it, The Siege. Duncton Wood gets in four long journeys [the travel part being mercifully skipped], one siege of sorts, a natural disaster [or two, depending on how you look at it] and throws in a hell of a lot of trees [the back of the dust jacket compares Duncton Wood to The Lord of the Rings; I cannot help but feel whoever wrote that was comparing the number of times trees get described in loving detail]. However, what Duncton Wood is really about is spirituality, and how Bracken and Rebecca bring about spiritual rebirth to the stagnant Duncton system.
In terms of underlying structure Duncton Wood is a fine piece of work. Mr Horwood prologues the book with the pivotal meeting of Bracken and Rebecca, then settles in to spend about a quarter of the book describing their childhoods and the milieu in which they grew up. Hints are given of the unconventional plot structuring to come when Mandrake's backstory is brought out, whole and fully formed, purely for the sake of the reader's understanding of the character. This serves to set up what I might call the background milieu - i.e. the underpinning emotional character of the titular Duncton Wood, which is basically about food, sex, territory and nothing much more. The moles are busy being moles. The plot of the book, behind the actual events, is about the reintroduction of mole spirituality. This spirituality seems to occupy that odd, gentle point at which nature-loving Anglicanism runs over into the quietly pagan. The god of the moles is the Stone - a gestalt of all life through which the moles find the Stone's "silence" [a blend of inner peace, love and trust] manifest in the form of megalithic standing stones.
It is made quite clear from the start that many cliches of plot have been ejected from the building: Rebecca is Mandrake's daughter and everyone bloody well knows it; Bracken travels from Duncton Wood to Uffington to Siabod to Uffington to Duncton Wood and very little time is spent on the tedious business of the travelling itself [apparently mandatory to fantasy]; neither Bracken nor Rebecca is a virgin when they finally unite [indeed, they produce some thirteen children between them before actually getting to have sex with each other] and thank goodness for that; Mandrake is no cardboard Big Bad; the high priests of the mole religion are a bit shabby, low on the dogma site of things, neither corrupt nor oppressive and manage to get through the book without calling blasphemy more than once.
As said, Duncton Wood contains surprise fantasy elements. The first third of the book is solidly grounded in the real, so that as the story ramps up through carved flint owls and echo tunnels into a chamber full of constantly writhing roots and a glowing holy stone, the reader is led into fantasy gently and without fuss. Some readers may find this "stealth magic" to be a bit of a cheat or a disappointment, especially if one was hoping for Watership Down with moles. Others may find the presence of a clear but understated fantasy element helps plaster over the gap between reality and some of the things the moles get up to.
Duncton Wood throws out one particularly good thing - the character of Mandrake. Introduced as a big brutal Welsh bastard [yes, he's a mole who speaks Welsh], the reader is almost immediately handed his backstory, which is presented not as Woe Pity Me tragic but simple why he is what he is. Mandrake's inner misery as motivation for his actions is referenced continually through the plot, until he goes off the deep end about halfway through the book, is killed by a secondary character and - much more interestingly - is reborn in his native home through the spells of his adoptive mother and the children of his daughter. Mandrake is not the most original of characters - indeed, his backstory runs perilously close to that of General Woundwort - but he is impressive from the standpoint that Mr Horwood has managed to make a rounded, sympathetic character out of brutal, violent, incestuous, obsessive, sociopathic Welsh mole.
This is not to say Duncton Wood does not have its flaws.
Bracken & co learn what I can only call mole-fu from a very obvious Ancient Kung-Fu Master stereotype. This particular moment of "What the bloody hell?" is compounded by said Ancient Kung-Fu Master teaching mole-fu to Boswell. Indeed, Boswell gets more training scenes than Bracken and Stonecrop combined ... yet not once in the whole book does he actually *fight* anyone. This really feels quite bizarre, since Boswell is already disabled in one paw and therefor has the best of all reasons to sit the training out, so what on earth was the point of all that? Rebecca's appearance on Siabod feels a bit weird, since although the plot carefully leaves enough time for her to get from Duncton Wood to Siabod and back it does feel a bit like she's offscreen teleporting. Another possible deal-breaker for readers is the way that the moles learn - navigation in Bracken's case, healing in Rebecca's - simply by "feeling" or "knowing". On the one hand this makes some sense in the slightly soft-focus style of the book, since one cannot expect moles to have schools, but some readers may feel that the characters are getting too much of an easy ride in that regard.
One big point where Duncton Wood falls down is on its female characters - they are all healers, mothers, witches or all three at once. Rose - cuddly mumsy healer - trains Rebecca up and then dies. Nightshade turns up for a while, makes some nasty threats in the general direction of black magic, and then dies - as a character, pointless, although quite possibly there to foreshadow something in the next volume. Rue is a bit-part who has two roles: panic and have children, after fulfilling which she vanishes out of the plot. Curlew is similar: be sickly, shelter Rebecca, vanish. Y Wrach - crazy Welsh molewitch and Mandrake's adoptive mother - redeems much of this by being hardcore enough to cast spells in up mountains in horrible weather and not die, although she does indeed fall into the same basic crone pattern as Curlew. Rebecca is probably the worst offender, verging into canon Sue territory: she is grace and light to all, a healer, loved by everyone. She has her downs alongside her ups, the former of which help to balance her character, but of all the things that might put a reader off finishing Duncton Wood, one is Rebecca's character, especially early in the book.
Another problem with Duncton Wood is the lack of emotional consequences. For a book all about love and suffering, this seems weird. Bracken has no reaction to the death of his father Burrhead, or of his daughter Violet. Stonecrop dies without anyone apparently caring. Curlew and Rue likewise sidle out of the plot without anyone noticing much. The only character who gets much grieving is Mekkins. The moles in general are characterised by having quite short memories, with events more than six months ago being near legendary, so this would be excusable if the secondary characters weren't constantly falling out of the plot.
However, for me the weakest part of Duncton Wood is its ending. There is a goodly stretch at the end where plot threads are tied up, characters are parked and ducks are generally put into rows. The problem here is that this section is written in vastly less detail than the beginning third of the book, so it feels terribly rushed and weightless. The worst part is a very awkward section where Bracken gets stuck in a mole-trap, pulled out by a human, thrown against a standing stone and left to die, whereupon Rebecca gets his psychic distress call from several miles away, beseeches the Stone to help Bracken, and the stone circle Bracken's fallen in lights up Spielberg-style to heal him. All this is covered in maybe six pages at most and has no further impact on the story, not great considering Bracken's shoulder wound should have crippled him. This is the most ostentatious display of magic fireworks in the book and one cannot help but feel they were squandered. Worse yet, this scene is strongly reminiscent of Hazel's shooting in Watership Down and one is very struck with the fact that Richard Adams did it better.
The comparison to Watership Down is both obvious and unavoidable. Both are clearly and solidly grounded in the British countryside, both strive to keep to a general principle of animals doing what animals do normally, and so on and so forth. There are moments in Duncton Wood that loudly echo moments in Watership Down - Bracken's wounding in the trap versus Hazel's shooting and/or Bigwig's snaring, Mandrake's general character and backstory versus General Woundwort's general character and backstory, Gelert versus the farm dog, and so on. In any comparison, it is sadly Duncton Wood that comes off the worse. Although Y Wrach's big moment with Gelert is one of the best moments in the book, in retrospect it feels almost like a "Have at you!" to Woundwort versus the farm dog, and simply doesn't compare to the eerieness of Fiver's visions. Comparing Duncton Wood to Watership Down really does highlight how weak and rushed the ending of the former feels, compared to the solidity of the latter.
Duncton Wood gives the feeling of being a book that was written twice, once with a conventional plot structure and once re-written as it is now. One gets the impression that the middle and last thirds of the book have been swapped around, probably because Mandrake's backstory hit Mr Horwood around the head halfway up Siabod. Turn the two around and one has a very conventional story - setup, quest, big battle at the end. One can posit how events would have played out in the original draft: the unknown father of Rebecca's Siabod litter would indeed be Mandrake, paying off the spiritual rebirth angle and the bizarre absence of any consequences of his rape of her earlier in the book. Nightshade was once Y Wrach. The core of the book would have been about Bracken's spiritual growth through his journeys to Uffington and Siabod, and Rebecca's though her emotional suffering and need for an independent identity back in Duncton. The big battle in the middle of the book would have been the denouement, with Mandrake's death being the climax. This would have been a much poorer book.
All in all, Duncton Wood is a passable read. Assuming one is not turned off by Rebecca in the first quarter of the book, one will probably read on to the end with contentment and indeed probably enjoyment. I do not think readers will regret tackling Duncton Wood, although they may feel that the end short-changes the beginning.
This book is:
* - unconventionally structured
* - a surprisingly easy read
* - conveniently broken down into manageable chunks for the stop-start reader
This book is not:
* - for kids
* - well-finished
* - consistent