Mythic matriarchs and troubled twins – Penelope Farmer’s ‘Year King’ (1977)

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At the heart of Year King is landscape, an Exmoor landscape – and one that is earthy and real, powerful and unsentimental. It’s as much dour and wet as lush and verdant. People live and work as part of it; it’s not a place that is visited and admired – it’s a landscape utilised. Animals are hunted, earth is worked.

‘Year King’ was published in 1977 by Chatto and Windus. The first edition cover illustration here is by William Bird.

Year King rests on a framework of ‘the king of the year’. There are many aspects to this ancient folklore – fertilised by James Frazer with The Golden Bough, branching into the neo-paganism of the early 20th century, adapted by many, and examined objectively in recent years by Ronald Hutton.

It explains death and renewal over the year – in winter, the land is barren; in spring, it grows. The king reigns for the first half of the year, until harvest, when he is cut down… we see this when our evenings shorten from the solstice in June, until the depths of December when the hours of light lengthen and it is summer again.

Dylan and Lewis – or Lan and Lew – are twins. Lew studies at Cambridge, confident and successful; Lan studies at Bristol, from the family home. His lonely and demanding mother, her husband constantly absent with work overseas, raises his younger sister. Lew can deal with his mother; Lan cannot. Lew has physical prowess, Lan does not.

Lan is the Year King: after Christmas, he leaves Bristol for Exmoor, and as the year grows, so does he.

Some magical-realism illustrates Lan’s dislocation in his search for identity – for brief moments he lives within Lew’s body: he makes love to his girlfriend, he rides a wave, he climbs a rock face.

Lan’s visits to Exmoor are brief at first, but he is soon immersed. He goes to earth. Layers of identity are removed – he leaves the family home, rejects academia, and is drawn to working with the land. He sees the contrast between his arty ‘student type’ and the childhood friend Greg who now works a farm, and represents a naturalness, solidity, at ease with himself. Lan does not ‘belong’ and yet in this space there is freedom from a definition of who he is.

Into this comes Novanna, an American student living in the next valley. Travelled, learned, and from an academic family (with whom she has a happy relationship) she represents a liberal, privileged independence that assumes it can see into Lan and Lew to reveal the family dynamics.

In the spring Lan and Novanna are lovers; at the harvest celebration, again Novanna chooses Lan over his brother Lew. But as autumn draws on, Lan’s growth is challenged – he is forcibly cut free from his old life by the wiles of his mother and Novanna’s wisdom is unwanted.

At the darkest point of the year, Lan is repeating the lyric ‘I am a rock, I am an island’. It’s a mantra that straps him to his sense of self as the mind-swapping phases with Lew grow more frequent and more dangerous.

More layers of myth are introduced when Lan and Lew both descend into the earth – a disused mine is the land of the dead. As they break down, Lan cannot bear the weight of being the ‘failing’ twin, but neither can Lew bear the pressure of being the ‘favoured’ one as they have collided with their mother’s unhappiness. But it emerges that they are not as psychically connected as Lan thinks.

That night he [Lan] awoke, though, weeping once again, and with an immense and hurtful sense he could not identify at first; except that it was to do with his mother. Pity, he decided eventually, pity – which in the end only made him feel sorry for himself too, because if she was lonely, so was he, he ached with loneliness: while Lew lay there, beside him; but not there, because asleep… because he was alone inside his skull and so was Lew.

Year King overflows with myth and meaning, and really marks Penelope Farmer out as a fascinating writer as she explores how we survive the path among brothers and sisters and the needs of those who gave us life. The breadth of her exploration of the inner mind is as wide and expansive as the landscape she uses, and it surpasses something like The Owl Service in this respect; her observations are acute and finely tuned to nuances of meaning in everyday life.

Year King is another title inexplicably out of print…

A Castle of Bone

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Penelope Farmer is best known for Charlotte Sometimes, a book that inspired The Cure to dawdle gothick chords around it for a song of the same name. (They also wandered a Victorian boarding school in the video, with the curious vacant malaise most of us only get in Morrisons, but which early 80s popstars mustered whenever a camera appeared.) There’s something quite indie about Ms Farmer: her books shoegaze with the best of them.

Head soundly lagged to dull an ear-ache, I’ve just sped through 1974’s  A Castle of Bone. It’s the perfect state to imbibe something like this. There’s a wardrobe that returns things to a former state (and so, when a wallet is lost inside, it returns as the sow that leant it her leather). A fifty-fathoms-deep Greek myth is there too, winding around two sets of brothers and sisters with a perplexity of which Alan Garner would be proud. For a book aimed at ‘young adults’ the psychological detail is intense, and it’s the work unpicking this that makes her books repel any prejudice against fantasy novels.

Like the better examples, A Castle of Bone unsettles by releasing unease into a complacent, everyday world. Here are insolent shopgirls, junk shops plastered with posters for a band called ‘The Stoned Crows’, unliberated 70s housewife/mothers whose children are made awkward by cooler, hipper versions driving battered Renaults in ‘magpie’ clothes. It could be comical, but it’s eery; and as Farmer shuffles the seven ages of life she warns darkly of the shadows of adulthood.

Penelope Farmer, shoegazing