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Sarah Hall: Haweswater

In 1929, worked started on the dam which would form the Haweswater Reservoir. The valley was flooded in 1935, covering the village of Mardale, a small farming community in what was then Westmoreland, in order to provide water for Manchester. Sarah Hall’s novel tells of the effect this had on the inhabitants. For a first published novel, this is a first-class work. Hall not only writes well, in a wonderfully poetical style, she produces living, believable but very individual characters, beautifully describes the wild landscape of this relatively remote part of England and shows how much a community can be a positive force but how easily it can be put asunder. The characters she uses for her story are not, she states, the actual characters that lived in the real village but entirely fictitious.

Much of the story focuses on Janet Lightburn. Indeed, the novel starts with her difficult birth. Her mother goes into labour during a fierce snow storm and the doctor is unable to get through. It is said in the village that if there is difficult birth, the relationship between mother and daughter will be difficult and this more or less proves to be the case. Janet is intelligent, headstrong and determined. In many ways, she takes after her father, Samuel, who is a hard-working farmer and is up to any challenge. However, she is also intelligent and interested in reading, helped by a committed teacher who will go off to the Spanish Civil War. But what she really seems to like, from a young age, is helping her father on the farm rather than helping her mother in the house and she is up to any task that she is given.

Everything changes when Jack Liggett arrives in the village. Jack seems a decent young man, well mannered, well read and also a Northerner from a poor background. But he works for the Manchester City Waterworks and it is his job to get the area cleared for his employers. The farmers are all tenant farmers and the land has already been sold. They do not have any legal rights, as they soon learn, and they are given notice on their tenancies and have no option but to leave. It is Janet, however, now a young woman, who takes up the fight, negotiating concessions with Liggett and challenging him, but also reluctantly starting an affair with him. The affair, inevitably, is a passionate but a difficult one, not least because her mother is horrified and she herself is partially ashamed of it.

The second part of the story tells of the start of the construction of the dam. Life may be grim for the farmers but it also is for the dam workers. They live in prefab dormitories, away from their families. There are many injuries and deaths during the construction – Hall spares us no details though she does not attack the employers, just shows the suffering of the men. Inevitably, there are disputes between the farmers and the dam workers. The dam workers initially come to the Mardale pub but, after a fight, they go elsewhere, leaving the farmers with their own pub. Gradually – some faster than others – the Mardale residents move on. They accept their fate, not happily but without making too much fuss. The better-off leave first – the artist and the local vicar – but the others follow, including the Lightburn family. But this is a novel not just about the building of a dam in an inhabited valley, nor a history. It is also about the Lightburn family and Hall throws in a terrible tragedy, of Greek dimensions.

As I stated above, this really is a first-class first novel. Hall tells of two tragedies, one affecting a family, another affecting a community and marries the two together. But she always writes a vividly poetic novel, showing the bleak landscape of Westmoreland but, at the same time, how the people there cope with the life, how they have formed a community and how that community has stuck together, even or, perhaps, especially in hard times, and now that community is to be destroyed to provide water to a remote and grim industrial city. She does not take a polemical stance – her criticism of the Manchester City Waterworks is muted, though still there – but rather focuses on the life of the working men and women, both as individuals and as a community and it is this that makes this a first-class novel.

Publishing history

First published 2002 by Faber & Faber