The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.
This enigmatic memorial stone, high on the bank of a prehistoric Pennine track in Cheshire, is a mystery that lives on in the hill farms today.
John Turner was a packman. With his train of horses he carried salt and silk, travelling distances incomprehensible to his ancient community. In this visionary tale, John brings ideas as well as gifts, which have come, from market town to market town, from places as distant as the campfires of the Silk Road. John Turner’s death in the eighteenth century leaves an emotional charge which, in the twenty-first century, Ian and Sal find affects their relationship, challenging the perceptions they have of themselves and of each other. Thursbitch is rooted in a verifiable place. It is an evocation of the lives and the language of all people who are called to the valley of Thursbitch.
Garner is one of the few authors that I struggle with, after enjoying the magical The Wierdstone of Brasingamen and then being less convinced by some of his other books – Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift – I once again found myself hooked by the ancient ways of the author’s evocative scene setting.
This book feels like a culmination of ideas of the three above books that didn’t quite convince me when I initially read them. With two separate stories, one a character exploration and the other a glorious look into the past with its ancient traditions, with an opening that really sets the scene for the delights to come.
The echoing of time both backwards and forwards is an appropriate plot device, especially as we are fast losing our connection with the land in modern times. Garner creates an atmosphere that lingers with the reader and is infused with the soil and its seemingly mythical properties. He deals with loss and the changes to what is an insular setting, the titular valley of Thursbitch.
The book is minimal in terms of superfluous detail so as a result is tightly written but less is definitely more in this case. The lack of plot though is a good thing as it is about the characters and what they do and believe, that is the true focus; its magic, haunting, pagan and the beauty of the countryside. The book serves as a reminder of the passage of time and that the past traditions and language we formerly used are threatening to be forgotten and lost to new generations.
The use of archaic language in the text is a challenge to interpret in some cases and plenty of times I resorted to context of surrounding sentences to clue myself in but it doesn’t detract from the reading experience, as it allows the characters to feel more real, with their vulnerabilities and uncertainties. The coming of change and its consequences are a real fear and the local Cheshire customs which are sometimes disturbing and alien are always absorbing and part of our heritage that should not be forgotten.
The modern story is no less potent, with a more philosophical feel to it and as times collide a more internal storyline is played out regarding the characters who feel the residual effects of the 18th century people before them and of their attitudes. As this side of the story unfolds, it becomes a moving look at something which will become apparent as the story unfolds and is best left without any spoilers for the full impact to be had.
Being grounded in a real place always makes things much more tangible, apparently Thursbitch still affects people as it did the author, which makes the book mature. Much more is packed in than its succinct 158 pages suggest, it feels like a shard of history that becomes embedded in the reader’s imagination, a fragmenting and repiecing together of time in with all its humanity.
In a short book Garner can do something extraordinary with the elements and the magic he imbues his words with, something real and visceral deeper ingrained in our DNA and his books should be experienced by all. whilst a lot of Garner’s work is not always immediately obvious, it is always tantalisingly within the reader’s grasp if they choose to work for it and the pay off is always rewarding and gives so much more than most authors. This is a book to be thought over and reread but that is part of the beauty of it, it gives to the reader what they put in and more besides.