on 19 June 2002
This is as powerful first novel as you could hope for. Set in the 1930s, the novel charts the disintegration of a farming community in the Lake District, northern England. Close-knit, and largely unchanged for generations, the village is ripped apart by the incursion of the Manchester Water Board who appropriate the valley in order that they can flood it to create a reservoir. The villagers are forced to move out, abandoning their homes and their way of life. Haweswater vividly brings to life the a clash of an old, agricultural way of life with the inevitable encroachment of modernity and industrialistaion.
If the backdrop is the scenery of lakes, valleys and mountains, at the foreground is the Lightburn family, mother and father, son and daughter. Janet Lightburn, a headstrong young woman who reaches out beyond the confines of the valley, falls in love with the natural enemy, the architect of the reservoir project. Despite themselves the love grows, secretly at first, and with tragic consequences. All the while, as we become more involved with the characters and the drowning of the past, the valley is being flooded, inch by creeping inch, creating an uncanny and unsettling sense of impending doom.
The writing is majestic and bewitching, laced with poetry while never spilling into melodrama or pretention. You'll love it!
on 26 July 2002
Sarah Hall's Haweswater has about it, like the Cumbrian landscape it so hauntingly portrays, a foreboding terrible beauty. In its depiction of farming life and the rhythms of speech it simultaneously captures a place and time and yet is timeless.
That this is a first novel is amazing enough - that it is written by an author so young makes it doubly so. I had begun to fear that authors like Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru were the best my generation has to offer. Thank God for Sarah Hall who seems to truly understand what literature is about and what it can do - this novel is in the tradition of greats like Thomas Hardy ( the impact of modernity on an unchanging world reminds one of "The Woodlanders") and D.H. Lawrence.
The story builds towards an inevitably unhappy ending but within that there is the kernel of hope, and I particularly liked the way one event in the novel gives rise to a local myth.
The writing is poetic, and on occassion the metaphors can be a little off the mark, but these flaws are few and do not detract from a marvelous book that deserves to be widely read. I shall look forward to the author's next work.
on 29 July 2002
This debut novel comes straight from the heart of the author, and almost straight from the lakeland itself. I know because I heard Ms. Hall read her work in June, and on the second point I know because I am from the Lake District myself. There is no pretension present in this work, just honesty, integrity and soul.
I will not recap the plot, as the first review posted here does that nicely. I will say though that the descriptive quality that this work has took my breath away because I am deeply familiar with these hills, and have walked/climbed Helvellyn and many others; and this writing made me feel at home though I read most of the book in India. I would in fact defy anyone to compose a more atmospheric rendering of the region and the people, especially the hard edge and 'just get on with it' attitude of Cumbrians even today. The language of this book captures the entire thing, including the dialect, which is done in a way understandable to all. The detail is equally incredible, and I almost could not believe that this was written by a modern-day Cumbrian, and not someone who was there at the time.
At the end, I knew that the people portrayed were not real, but I was left with the very distinct impression that they must have been awfully like the people who actually went through losing their village in this way. This really DID happen, and it just makes this whole chapter of history very real and immediate to me, especially after hearing my 96 year old grandmother say 'that's manchester's water, you know' every time we pass the lake, and never really having thought much about it before.
Ms. Hall has a bright future ahead of her, if she continues to use the same awsome creativity and the same skill at painting such a real picture as she has done in this work.
on 7 August 2002
I picked up Haweswater on a whim while traveling, and read it twice in quick succession. While Ms. Hall's intuitive grasp of landscape, her unwavering understanding of plot, and her eerily poetic language are all to be loudly commended, it is her characters that have haunted my mind ever since. Janet Lightburn prowls through the novel like a creature born onto the wrong planet, perhaps into the wrong skin, and the vague terror her other-worldliness instills in both her parents (her father detects a "low growl" emanating from her chest when she's a child; her mother senses that she's "spilling at the edges" as a grown woman) makes her all the more thrilling and inscrutable a heroine. Samuel Lightburn, perhaps the emotional center of the novel, is unforgettable in his silent, steadfast complicity with fate, and Ella Lightburn is downright electrifying from the beginning of the novel, when she walks away from her own newborn and, still bloody from labor, marches alone to church. Meanwhile, Ms. Hall sets up Isaac Lightburn's demise with such finesse and subtlety along the way that when it finally occurs, one feels that one has been privy to a long, half-understood secret that at last makes terrible sense. I will wait very impatiently indeed for Ms. Hall's second novel.
on 12 November 2002
I have a particular interest in this novel, as this is my home.
The author does a magnificent job of rendering this local landscape into the printed word, and paints characters that blend into the natural environment with a welcome realism and attention to detail that is rarely encountered.
As another reviewer has commented, there are a few places where such detail can be obtrusive, but nonetheless the novel is undeniably well-crafted.
Yet perhaps the author underestimates her own abilities; the scale of the ending of the book seems disproportionate to the environment - and indeed - the rest of the story. The standard of writing is high, and to end the story in a blunt, epic way feels "too easy" somehow, and overshadows the fact that there are true-life events and memories that provide the real backdrop to the storyline.
Nonetheless, an impressive debut from a writer who clearly cares not just about her work, but for the characters she creates and the landscape she describes.
Haweswater is a staggeringly good book. For its heady scope and beauty, for its dirt under the finger nail characters, for its towering landscape, for Sarah Hall’s prowess to deliver an inspiring yet tragic tale with natural ease and surety of language; Haweswater stands head and shoulders beside the very best of modern fiction.
It is 1936 and an unassuming Cumbrian farming community is faced with its destruction; the valley is to be flooded for a new reservoir to water the growing industrial northern cities. The waterworks representative, Jack Liggett, decamps himself in the village to appease the locals and smooth the rough edges of their malcontent. The engineers, surveyors and navvies move in; the construction of a monstrous dam begins.
What makes Haweswater such a special and endearing account, is Sarah Hall’s treatment of her characters and the attention to grand themes with the small detail that matters. Not once do we feel patronised by cliché that the juxtaposition could render. Liggett is the city boy with sharp suit and racing red sports car, standing out like a red rag to the bulls. Yet he becomes less the protagonist and more the protector. He ingratiates; he gains strength by fading into the background; he embarks on a bitter, tempestuous and earthy affair with a Janet, the local farm girl who embodies the community’s fight to save their future and their history. Her nemesis is the crux of the novel.
Haweswater has some beautiful beacons of imagery and scenes that will live with you for a long time. Spiced throughout with a poetic resonance and true passion.
Think Wuthering Heights, think Thomas Hardy…read Haweswater. But whatever your taste do not miss this trick of imagination brought to life.
on 26 January 2016
Just couldn't get into it even though I really wanted to having spent lots of time in this area of the country. Over blown and over written, leaving no scope for a readers imagination. She can obviously write, just needs a better editor to tell her when to stop!
on 14 May 2013
Near the beginning of the novel, a bullock has Janet Lightburn's father trapped against a rowan, butting him with its horns. Janet, aged eight at the time, has taken refuge in the tree on her father's command. Then: `It was only a moment later that he heard the cry, a throaty half-growl, half-hiss, and there was a flash of yellow down from the branches of the tree, on to the neck of the bullock and off, bringing enough weight against the animal for its head to drop with the shock of it'.
This is a defining moment for Janet and Samuel Lightburn alike. The bullock's horns catch Janet as she falls and the resultant scar will be visible on her forehead for the rest of her life. For her father, Janet's scar becomes emblematic of the deep feeling, almost awe and reverence, which he will always have for his daughter. From the incident, the reader is made aware of the `energy' within the girl and realises the depth of feeling of which Janet is capable and the extent to which she can channel it.
Janet's deepest feelings are inextricably interconnected with the place where she was born and grew up (the Westmorland village of Mardale) and with Jack Ligget, the love of her life. Jack is the representative of Manchester City Waterworks, the intention of which is to build a dam, destroy Mardale, flood the dale and create the Haweswater Reservoir. Jack, `a product of the city', falls under the spell of the land and Janet. At their first meeting it is Janet's `energy' that attracts: `She lacked the combed, powdered quality of the women in the city tearooms and dancehalls, and also their stunted manner of walking. This woman strode. Her hair lifted back in the wind. He thought to himself, she is not beautiful'.
The story is straightforward enough but Sarah Hall excels in the telling. She has a way with words that makes her prose as lyrical as poetry. The weight and the rhythm of words grab the readers' emotions. The power of language binds together the story's elements and emphasises the close interrelationship of people and place that the reservoir is likely to destroy. The patterning and layering of images is spellbinding and results in a richly satisfying whole.
When the Royal Engineers come to raise Mardale to the ground, the remaining villagers gather to witness the spectacle. There is a typically marvelous image of Janet, watching the bombing alone and thinking of her dead Jack: `She reached for a small stone lodged in the grass, put it into her mouth, and its wet mineral lined up along her tongue. She put two more in the sockets of her closed eyes and lay back as if to sleep. After a time the explosions became so loud she thought they were right next to her. And still she did not retreat. The bombs continued to detonate, bragging through the grass to where she was sitting alone. She caught pieces of the old village in her new locks of hair, in her lap, in her skin'.
Novels are sometimes described as sensational in a pejorative sense. To read `Haweswater' is to experience the sensations of characters who feel for places and people with passionate intensity. It's a sensational read.
on 31 July 2002
As an avid reader I am in the habit of galloping through a large number of books in fast order. With Haweswater I found myself stopping and thinking about the language, wording, and insights expressed. The best way to describe it is that I would just savor it. It was hard to find something to read after Haweswater that didn't sound banal by comparison. It was so vivid that I was totally into the story and felt I had really been at that place and time. I really relished this book.
on 12 April 2016
This is an elegy for a world that's disappearing. I finished it, but with difficulty: I don't think it has enough of a narrative to sustain the rather inflated 'poetic' tone. I read it because I'd so loved 'The Wolf Border', which has both, and is a really terrific read. And I guess I can forgive anything to someone clearly loves Cumbria as much as this author does!