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Why should the world take notice of one more love that's failed?
on 25 August 2010
This novel is set in the Somerset levels, a sparsely-populated, low-lying area of wetlands in South-West England. The date is probably the 1960s and 1970s. It is a coming-of-age story, told in the first person, about the childhood and teenage years of the hero, Billy, especially his first love affair. Apart from farming, one of the few industries native to the area is basket-making, an activity made possible by the fact that the damp conditions are ideal for willow-trees, and it is willow twigs which are the basket-maker's raw material. After leaving school Billy himself becomes an apprentice basket-maker, not from any great love of the craft but because his father is himself a basket-maker who can teach him the skills of the trade and because of a lack of other employment opportunities in the area. The only alternative, becoming a farm labourer like his boyhood friend Dick, does not appeal to him.
Billy's first love is Muriel, a girl from a well-to-do middle-class family, originally from London, who moves into the local manor house with her Bohemian artist mother Anne. (Muriel's parents appear to be divorced; her father does not appear in the story). The two meet soon after Muriel arrives in the area and quickly become first friends, then lovers, and they spend an idyllic summer together. When Muriel has to leave to go to college in the autumn, however, Billy realises that she always meant more to him than he did to her.
The story of Billy and Muriel is a commonplace one; there are probably thousands, if not millions, of similar romances going on somewhere in the world every day. So why (to borrow the question rhetorically asked by David Essex in his song "A Winter's Tale") should the world take notice of one more love that's failed?
The answer is that when that love is the subject of a book as good as Peter Benson's novel the world should indeed sit up and take notice. The book is more than just a simple love story, although as a love story it works very well. It is also the story of the area in which it is set, and it is significant that Benson chose to call it "The Levels" rather than, say, "Billy and Muriel" or some other title alluding to the love affair. He does not just describe the landscape of the area, but also tries to give a picture of its buildings, its people, its way of life and its wildlife, especially the birds. (As a keen birdwatcher myself I was delighted by Benson's eye for ornithological detail). I was most strongly reminded of Graham Swift's "Waterland", published four years before "The Levels", which also tries to give a comprehensive picture of life in a wetland district of England, in that case the East Anglian Fens. The lyricism of Benson's writing about the countryside also called to mind the works of H.E. Bates.
The landscape of the Somerset Levels is not just a backdrop to the story of Billy and Muriel but also, as it were, becomes a part of that story, almost a character in its own right. The Levels are not conventionally picturesque in the picture-postcard sense, unlike some other parts of Somerset such as Exmoor or the Mendip Hills, but here they are revealed to have a haunting, melancholy beauty of their own. There is a scene near the end where Muriel suggests that Billy might accompany her to London, where she is due to start at college. Despite his feelings for Muriel, Billy realises that he could never do so, not only because it would mean leaving his parents but because it would mean leaving the area which, despite all its limitations, has provided him with the only life he has ever known. In London he would be the proverbial "fish out of water".
Benson also has a good eye for characterisation, shown even in minor characters like Dick, whose main sources of pleasure are his dog, his motorcycle and getting drunk on green cider, or Anne, an eccentric artist who paints a hill pink because she has run out of green paint. (When asked why she doesn't simply buy more green paint, she replies that an artist must make life difficult for herself). Billy's father, obsessed with taxidermy, is equally eccentric in his own way, while his mother, who keeps chickens as a sideline, is more pragmatic but sharp-tongued and formidable. Muriel at first seems a captivating girl but later shows a less sympathetic side to her character when she reveals herself to be coldly promiscuous, unable to comprehend the depth of Billy's feelings for her.
Billy, as befits the narrator of the story, is more complex. In the early chapters, dealing with his childhood before Muriel comes into his life, he is a mischievous schoolboy, but later grows into a sensitive young man, although he generally tries to hide his sensitivity. He has only limited formal schooling, but can sometimes surprise us with the breadth of his knowledge. He is in many ways a conflicted character; intellectually, he knows that his relationship with Muriel cannot last but emotionally he is unable to accept that fact. He feels imprisoned by his Somerset homeland but knows that he is unable to leave it, even though he runs the risk of becoming as limited in his outlook as Dick.
When the book first came out in 1987 it won the Guardian Fiction Prize and garnered much critical acclaim; the late John Fowles called it "as cool and sharp as a glass of cider" and Jane Gardam said it was "A delight- a funny, painful, beautiful book". Today it is out of print, and although Benson wrote several more novels over the next ten years he does not appear to have published any since 1997. Yet reading "The Levels" convinced me that he is an author who deserved wider recognition. It is a marvellous book, lyrical and haunting in its description of the joys and pain of young love and in its depiction of the little-known corner of England which inspired it.