Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke
Alma Books, 9781846881770, £7.99
Benson is the author one of my favourite novels, ‘The Levels’, a marvellous evocation of the Somerset I’ve known and loved for the last twenty years. ‘Two Cows…’ is a return to the south west corner of the county, set in the legendary hot summer of 1976. It is enjoyable, more of a romp than a meditation, and had me hooked from the beginning. The story is generally low key, infected with lethargy by the summer heat, but with occasions of nigh on high farce and climactic viciousness. The two cows of the title only make a passing appearance but the vanful of smoke is a key player in a tale of village life, police corruption and awakening receptivity to love, to the oracular signs of the natural world and to phenomena from a more ancient and believing time.
Elliott is a farm labourer in his early twenties, as is Spike, his best friend from school days. Spike is full of impossible get-rich-quick schemes and is blighted by both a flash of recklessness and a lack of common sense. His eye for the main chance thrusts them into a situation that becomes more and more violently crushing. Elliott’s attempts to extract them both from a seemingly inevitable doom jeopardises his life, his living and those around him whom he has begun to trust, love and respect.
There are many complications in the story. One which is intriguing and unsettling is Elliott’s relationship with the ‘old ways’, the folk lore of the land, to which his mother is finely attuned. Her son may have her gifts but he has to discern for himself whether and how he is going to use them. It is a clever notion, quite in keeping with the rural, ancient, myth dusted geography of Somerset and it raises the possibility of a hyper reality slipping and sliding through the everyday, maybe manipulating events, maybe reflecting them, maybe gaining power through them.
Enjoyable though it is, this is not on a par with ‘The Levels’. There is some messy sleight of hand over the plot, the landscape is sometimes drawn in rather casually – places name-checked rather than described – and there are a few too many allusions to a dark older story in the history of Elliott’s village. Indeed, it turns out that this other tale has become the focus of Benson’s latest novel, a gothic chiller, and I wonder if his mind was fully on ‘Two Cows…’ as he was writing it or was already racing ahead to the next novel. But for all that, there is much in this twisting and adventurous tale, populated by ciphers, caricatures and richly imagined characters that commends it for a light read with some bite and some lasting images.