‘You don’t need to write about big cities to say big stuff,’ says novelist Edward Hogan. William Trevor, Alice Munro and Annie Proulx are among his small-town stars
Elk grazing in Yellowstone Park, Wyoming.
Last week, Edward Hogan won the Desmond Elliott first novel prize for Blackmoor, the story of a Derbyshire village during the miners’ strike. He chooses his favourite stories set outside the city.
“I grew up in a village, and loved it – it had a park, the woods, and a Co-op. When I got older I realised that the notion of a perfect small community wasn’t always that simple, especially if you didn’t play your prescribed role. I am still drawn to stories set in such places, where everyone knows your name, for better or worse, and the natural world is always creeping in. I love spare novels about a handful of people and their passions. These stories show that you don’t need to write about big cities to say big stuff.”
1. Close Range by Annie Proulx
Proulx must have notebooks full of laconic sayings from Wyoming ranches: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze” is one of my favourites. I study Brokeback Mountain all the time, for the effortless way that years are compressed into a sentence. It’s technically brilliant and an absolute heartbreaker. It made me sob in the bath.
2. Union Street by Pat Barker
A brilliant, and quite correctly disturbing book. Of Union Street’s women, the story of Kelly Brown – a victim of rape – made the biggest mark on me. Barker’s take on the care and oppression of communities is complex and thoughtful. “You can get used to anything,” Kelly says, ominously, at the start of the book.
3. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Nomi Nickel is a liberal, rock n’ roll teenager stewing in a small Mennonite settlement which her sister and mother have already fled. It’s a sad book, but a very funny one, too. At one point, Nomi visits an elderly resident whose strange syntax inadvertently makes her sound masochistic. “Throw me down the stairs a face cloth,” the woman says, or, “Slice me open a bun.”
4. Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe
An astute gift from a friend, the genius of this book is that it lets the residents of a rural Suffolk village speak plainly for themselves. It is moving and detailed, evoking the horror of war, and the hardship and joy of trades from thatching to bell-ringing. As one former farm labourer says, “Village people in Suffolk were worked to death. It is not a figure of speech.”
5. Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro
A little girl accompanies her optimistic father on his travelling-sales route through the outlying districts of Depression-battered Huron country. On the way, they visit the father’s old flame, Nora – a Catholic (and therefore not marriage material). Munro is amazing because she writes stories about the fleeting nature of time, set in people’s kitchens. This story is about 12 pages long and typically profound.
6. Norma Dolby’s Diary: An Account of the Great Miners’ Strike by Norma Dolby
Blackmoor is not based on anywhere specific, but the idea of a village sitting on a volatile pit-full of exploding gas came from the real Derbyshire town of Arkwright, which was deemed unsafe and demolished in the 90s. Norma Dolby, an Arkwright resident, campaigned for the miners throughout the strike. There is also a brilliant oral history programme about Arkwright by Jan Rogers, in the BBC Radio Archives, collecting the honest and conflicted views of the residents after their village was rebuilt across the road.
7. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
An incredible first line: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.” You’d be right to be suspicious of a narrator with a two-decade margin of error concerning his own age. A stunning tale of a town that can’t control the man it has created. I imagine it influenced Ross Raisin’s excellent debut, God’s Own Country, set in agricultural Yorkshire.
8. The Collected Stories by William Trevor
I am reasonably new to William Trevor, having incorrectly presumed his stories to be quite sombre, traditional and staid. They are anything but. He writes brilliantly not only about London, but also of rural Ireland, depicting uncanny events and unusual desires. Stories like A Choice of Butchers and The Honeymoon show the desperate arrangements people make in order to go on living by the values they’ve been taught to respect.
9. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
The sections about Wendy, the Hoods’ teenage daughter, make me nostalgic, because they show the spooky beauty of nature lurking at suburban doors. Wendy gets her kicks in the graveyard and the meadows by the “funny farm”. The creek runs under her patio. Nature will not be stomped down.
10. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
Clearly, Shirley Jackson did not quite agree with propaganda portraying life as rosy in small-town post-war America. In this story, the villagers gather in the square and stone to death the “winner” of the lottery, a young mother, thus ensuring a good harvest. I never said it was subtle. Just as interesting is all the hate-mail Jackson received following publication. She said many of the letters simply asked “where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch”. I taught the story to south London teenagers whom I had thought unshockable. They said it was “sick”, and probably meant that in both senses.