On the day in 1941 that his nineteen-year-old wife gives birth to a son, middle-aged Welsh farmer Idris Hamer discovers a large, flat stone with unusual lettering on it while plowing one of his fields. Over the next 70 years, the stone will reappear periodically in the lives of the Hamers, serving as a sort of guardian talisman or tormenting demon in this bleak yet compelling family chronicle.
Idris and his wife, Etty, live in Radnorshire, a rural area bordering England where the residents consider themselves neither Welsh nor English, but something altogether different. Though Etty's child is named Oliver after Idris's beloved older brother, everyone in the community is well aware that Idris is not the child's father; his actual paternity remains a mystery, since he looks nothing like the Hamers or other locals, with his massive build and swarthy complexion. Idris, twenty years his wife's senior and prematurely aged by being gassed in battle, is actually a distant cousin of Etty's who agreed to marry her when she told him she was pregnant. As Etty comments, he is "a good man in his way", meaning that he leads the singing in Methodist chapel every Sunday and is not a violent drunk like her father, the local stationmaster. But Idris is also taciturn and set in his ways, and his sexual relationship with Etty is perfunctory on his part and reluctant on hers. Idris also has his own family problems with a younger brother who hovers on the periphery of the action, claiming a share of Hamer family land.
As the story moves ahead, Oliver gradually emerges as the central character. While Idris's life as a farmer in 1941 differs little from those of his ancestors (plowing with a horse, no electricity), Oliver will experience enormous changes over the years. Though his mother and grandmother have ambitions for him, he is drawn to the land and the animals every bit as much as Idris, and he will remain on the farm where he was born. He becomes something of a local legend for his brawn, long black hair, propensity for barroom brawls, the gaudy rings he wears, and the raven (named Maureen) perpetually perched on his shoulder. His violent temper sends him to prison for nine months--and leaves him with a large collection of bumps, bruises, and missing body parts.
Etty is the practical, business-minded member of the family who subscribes to agricultural journals and makes a number of astute decisions that enable her husband and son to go on playing farmer in an era when small family farms are an increasingly endangered species. She transforms a ruined cabin where a previous resident committed suicide into a rustic retreat for a university professor, and when hoof-and-mouth disease ravages the U.K., it is Etty who decides to purposely (and illegally) infect their herd, when she realizes that they will lose the farm without the reparations money offered by the government.
Oliver has an intense but brief fling with Naomi, daughter of the resident professor. This results in the birth of a son, Cefin, who will grow up in the city with very sporadic contact with his father. In one of the novel's more amusing episodes, Oliver encounters a wide-eyed grad student who has come in search of the man who inspired Naomi's critically acclaimed "post-pastoral" poetry volume--a book that Oliver has never bothered to look at. Despite Cefin's eventual academic degrees, travels around the world, and work in the information industry, he, like Idris and Oliver before him, is drawn to the Hamer farm in the story's surprisingly upbeat conclusion.
Despite the geographical distance between them, Tom Bullough's writing is strongly reminiscent of William Faulkner's, particularly in their characters' connection to the land and to family, however dysfunctional. Like Faulkner as well, Bullough can be a difficult stylist; many character relationships and plot points that other writers would spell out early on, only emerge gradually, obliquely, or not at all. In addition, Bullough uses a substantial number of dialect words that don't appear in standard dictionaries. He does explain at the beginning that the book's title refers to the edges of a field that are plowed after the rest, and there is a glossary on his website
for those who don't care to guess at the meaning of "larper" and "poochy" from their context. In the end Addlands
does provide an ample payoff for thoughtful readers in search of a heartfelt and moving look at a vanished way of life.