Synopsis (from the Vintage Books website):
On the Black Hill is an elegantly written tale of identical twin brothers who grow up on a farm in rural Wales and never leave home. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the 20th century. In depicting the lives of Benjamin and Lewis and their interactions with their small local community Chatwin comments movingly on the larger questions of human experience.
The book was awarded the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award.
I quoted the opening paragraphs in a Book Beginnings post back in 2011, when I first bought this book, but I think it’s worth repeating them here as they are typical of the style of the book:
For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as €˜The Vision’.
The bedstead, an oak four-poster, came from their mother’s home at Bryn-Draenog when she married in 1899. Its faded cretonne hangings, printed with a design of larkspur and roses shut out the mosquitoes of summer, and the draughts in winter. Calloused heels had worn holes in the linen sheets, and parts of the patchwork quilt had frayed. Under the goose-feather mattress, there was a second mattress, of horsehair, and this had sunk into two troughs, leaving a ridge between the sleepers. (page (9)
I love this book with its rich descriptions of both the landscape and the characters on the border between England and Wales. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones on a farm, barely touched by the 20th century, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.
Most of all I love they way Chatwin brings the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. At the same time Chatwin highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.