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on 17 February 2016
I came to live in this area and this was one of the first books I bought the I arrived. Dark, gripping and a hauntingly evocative indication of what life must have been like here 100 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it but it would still be enjoyable as a tale for anyone who has never been anywhere near here. The film is a pretty decent adaptation.
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on 9 June 2017
His best book imo.
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on 9 May 2017
I became totally immersed in this book. Vivid descriptions of the countryside. Joy and sadness. I felt such a connection to the landscape in an area I love.
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on 2 May 2017
Good book - already passed it on to someone else. Recommended
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on 13 March 2010
Bruce Chatwin, the writer of this novel, is mainly known for his travel books. Exotic places and reflections on travelling were his specialty. Yet "On the Black Hill" is possibly his best book, though set entirely in as unexotic a locale as possible, the borderlands between Wales and England. Chatwin's evocation of the peculiar atmosphere of a small, backwards farming community in Wales and the odd characters it produces is at once more lively and more tragic than any travel book could be.

The book revolves around a more or less chronological biography of twin brothers in a farmstead in Wales, written in sequential flashbacks. There is something of Xavier de Maistre in this: at the beginning of the novel, the twins are portrayed at the end of their life, living together in their isolated farm with a number of odd and antique items around them. These items then frame the telling of the tale of their life and of the people they encountered in it, so that in the telling each item becomes familiar and takes up its place in the sentimental narrative of the twins' experiences. In this manner, some of the attachment they have for their own place and their few possessions is projected onto the reader, which creates very skilfully a sense of identification with what are otherwise two very obviously highly weird people in a rather backwards and uninviting rural village.

Chatwin's book is remarkable because it is very compelling, a page-turner almost, while almost nothing of significance happens in it. But because the brothers grow up so stunted by their upbringing and environment, and because of the total social and mental helplessness of all people in the community, many events that would normally be considered minor and of little impact in our lives become enormous incursions into the farm life. This gives them a meaning and a tragic nature one would not normally assign them. At no point does the book even leave the direct surroundings of the Welsh borderlands, and yet it is more intriguing than many a story of Patagonia. An accomplishment.
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on 15 January 2011
I think this book is truly beautiful. Descriptive poetry of almost mindboggling quality.
I lend it with evangical zeal, and sometimes it is returned, when it isn't I can console myself with the thought that it will be treasured; it is always enjoyed.

I can almost understand why two "critics" found it depressing, because its tale of two "hen lanc", in Welsh literally "old youths" which usually means batchelors beyond marrying age, tells of frustrated love and worship of a long dead mother. But it is wrong to regard such lives as somehow failed, and the sureity with which one brother wealds the axe and the other keeps house is also a prayer in homage to the human spirit.

I do have one Welsh friend who could not read it, its depiction of two men so beautifully and accurately reminiscent of two long dead uncles it broke her heart. What should that mean in terms of star rating?

Bruce Chatwin was inspired by two brothers, not from Wales, but from the Welsh cultured area of Patagonia, written of in the poetic, if romanticised, travelogue "in Patagonia". Two men whose self reliance and stoicism, in their poor, tiny, Welsh dressered estancia, helped them lead a life of quiet, dignified displacement, speaking yr hen iath in a new world.

But the sheer beauty of the writing gives pleasure on every page and the final episode of the remaining brother, half of one, after the death of his twin, taking to the air as a birthday treat, though bathed in sadness, is truly, truly uplifting.

Beauty doesn't always mean happy, this book is beautiful, you may finish it with a tear of understanding but also a smile of enjoyment and appreciation, is that a definition of a true masterpiece?
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This wonderful little book shows us what a great talent Bruce Chatwin was. The world of literature is so much the poorer for his tragic early death. His only other work I have read is "In Patagonia", an enthralling account of his travels in that area. "On the Black Hill" is a very different work showing his great versatility and his great knowledge of country lives.
The book covers the lives of two brothers who are identical twins. They are born on a farm where they continue to live out their hardworking lives. Their lives inextricably woven together. Chatwins skill lies in his ability to make this unpromising material so immensely readable. He is so believable. I have lived and worked among such people all my life. My own Grandfather whose trousers were held up by a binder twine belt would have recognised the twins. They are rural characters seen across the length and breadth of our Country and no doubt in other country's also. At last they have an author who has captured them. The minutiae and detritus of their lives encapsulated in this brief book. No words are wasted here. Many will say "but what about Hardy". My own experience is that he left me cold. Too morbid and too distant for my personal tastes. But the brothers I warmed to. They are truly painted and it is as honest a work as I have come across. It has been a revelation to me and a breath of fresh air. If I could write I would love to write like this. If you truly wish to know how many rural people lived in isolated farms across the Country in the last century, then reading this book will enlighten you. If I seem a little over the top in my adulation I make no apologies. This little book deserves all the plaudits and more. My efforts here will not have been wasted if I convince only one person to read it. That thought would make me extremely happy.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 December 2014
Set on the Welsh/English border, this is the story of elderly twins in a remote rural community, opening in the late 19th century, with their parents' courtship, and concluding in the 70s, with the twins in old age.
As other reviewers have observed, nothing massive happens; there is interaction with the local aristocrats, the Bickertons; with various neighbours, notably the unfortunate Watkins family - daughter Meg puts one much in mind of a Mary Webb character.
World events seem relatively far away, although the First World War leaves its traces on one of the twins. They remain - largely - uniquely close to one another. Thus during a separation:
(Benjamin) 'hated Lewis for leaving and suspected him of stealing his soul. One day, staring into the shaving mirror, he watched his face grow fainter and fainter, as if the glass were eating his reflection until he vanished altogether in a crystalline mist.'
And as time moves on, there are new faces and long-lost relatives...
This life of ordinary people is perhaps summed up in a Harvest Festival sermon at their chapel: 'Our life is a bubble. We are born. We float upwards. We are carried hither and thither by the breezes. We glitter in the sunshine. Then, all of a sudden, the bubble bursts and we fall to the earth as specks of moisture. We are as these dahlias, cut down by the first frosts of autumn.'
A really enjoyable read.
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VINE VOICEon 8 June 2009
I found out about this book the first time I went to Hay-on-Wye, as the setting is the Black Mountains in the Welsh Borders. It is the only Chatwin novel I have read, but from the excellent biography by Nicholas Shakespeare I gathered that this is only one of many of his stories which are set in one of the remote parts of the world which he visited. The main theme is the symbiotic, sometimes love-hate, relationship of twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin, hill farmers who live from about 1900 to 1980, hardly ever leaving the wild, beautiful valley where they were born. Many of the main characters are drawn from life (we are told by Shakespeare), and the Black Mountains/Hay area is readily recognisable (although several places are renamed or transposed).

As "novels of the soil" go, this is nowhere near the quality of Hardy. Chatwin writes in short, strictly episodic chapters, and in short paragraphs with heavy emphasis on dialogue. Little wonder, therefore, that the story was transferred to film with only minimal need for adaptation. He seems to observe the feelings of the characters from a distance; this is not mere objectivity, but definite detachment. As a result his characters are somewhat two-dimensional and simply drawn, and you do not feel the same empathy with them as with, for example, Tess or Jude. (Perhaps the most genuinely poignant descriptions are of the twins witnessing the last minutes of their grandfather's and mother's lives; this is reminiscent of Cider with Rosie, though not so lyrically expressed.) However Chatwin does capture the sadness of the disappointment experienced by many of his characters.
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on 24 April 2011
I really enjoyed this book; while essentially it tells the story of twin boys who grow into men while living on a farm on the Black Hill, early 1900s and onwards, it does so much more. The relationship of the parents of Benjamin and Lewis Jones is fraught with problems, drawn together initially by infatuation and later through necessity, it is not a happy marriage, but one which is endures to the bitter end. The star of the novel is the countryside around the family farmstead, here Thomas Hardy and Flora Thompsom are called to mind in the elegant prose which Chatwin uses; the weather, the villagers, the harshness of life are all set in the context of the times and give us the full flavour of rural life, warts and all.
Highly recommended!
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