If you hang about book people long enough, the name Bruce Chatwin will likely come up as a lesser literary luminary. He is most well-known for “The Songlines”, a travelogue which explores the connections between aboriginal storytelling, creation myths, and nomadic existence.
“On the Black Hill” was his first work of fiction. Set on the borderlands of England and Wales, the novel follows the life of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis Jones. The brothers have an especially close bond — when Benjamin is stung by a wasp, for example, it is Lewis that feels the pain. Despite this closeness they have very different desires in life. Benjamin is a homebody and possibly gay; Lewis wants to get out and experience the world but is prevented by various forces within the Jones family dynamic from realizing his dreams. These tensions are played out against the backdrop of modern progression in the early 20th century, through both World Wars, the changes between the ruling class and tenant farmers, and the industrialization of agriculture.
What makes this book compelling is Chatwin’s writing style. Told largely in flashbacks from when the brothers are in their 80s, each chapter is a vignette in their lives together and the world as it is changing around them. Chatwin’s prose is as succinct as a pencil sketch. I was surprised to learn that the novel was written in 1982 — it would have been right at home on the bedside reading tables of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway. At 249 pages it’s a short read but a worthwhile one.