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Review of Duncton Wood by William Horwood

Like many of the books I read, I’d had this one for a while. Something had put me off reading it – beyond the usual lack of time and competing demands from other potential reads. But I took it with me to Thailand where I was hoping it would be a good holiday read. My hopes were dashed.

Duncton Wood could have been great. In a quote on the cover, Magnus Magnusson describes it as a cross between Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings (although I’m not sure what Magnus Magnusson’s expertise vis á vis literary criticism was). It’s a tale of moles. Intelligent moles. Mole who live in a network of burrows, who fight and mate just like real moles, but do it in the context a whole (or should that be ‘hole’?) mole-ish society. The story sounds promising, if a total cliché – the old ways are dying out, the council of elders has been taken over by thugs and it’s up to one or two or three innocent misfits to save the mole-ish world.

I had lots of problems with this book – so much so that I couldn’t go on reading it beyond about 300 pages, (I even tried speed reading to get it over with). It’s not quite as bad as Dan Brown, but at least The Da Vinci Code was a quick read.

Firstly, the plot is utterly corny. Secondly, the conceit of intelligent moles just doesn’t work. The moles fight to the death, they tend to mate just like animals, with brutal disregard for feelings. These things aren’t presented in a negative way – they’re just natural parts of life – but at the same time they take place within a very sentimental story. I’m sure it could have been made to work, but it just didn’t.

Thirdly, the writing isn’t very good. It takes far too long to go anywhere – I’m sure it could have been trimmed down to two thirds of its length. And it’s ridden with lazy, amateurish writing – telling and not showing, assuming the reader’s sympathies and not earning them. It feels like Horwood wanted to write a 19th century romantic saga, but realised it wouldn’t be very good and so tried this instead.

Fourthly, the characterisation is shoddy in places. The main female character, Rebecca, has a monster for a father – Mandrake is a foreigner who arrived one day, killed everyone he saw and assumed control of the council of elders. He beats Rebecca and tries to restrict her independence – all for no particular reason I can see other than it serves the story Horwood wanted to tell (Mandrake’s backstory, I must admit, is one of the highlights of the book and works quite well). Meanwhile, Rebecca keeps on loving him like a happy little daddy’s girl.

Fifthly, I don’t care for the book’s agenda, which is, basically, that everything was better in the past and that if we just stick to tradition and religion everything will be OK – not doing so is the road to ruin. Patronising bollocks.

I think I’ve said enough.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
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