Book Group review - 'Border Country' by Raymond Williams

Border Country (by Raymond Williams)

This nostalgic novel by well-respected mid-20th century academic Raymond Williams divided opinion in the group and gave rise to a lively discussion about its qualities as a work of literature.

A major theme is the father-son relationship between Harry and Matthew. The story starts with Matthew returning to his childhood home, a fictional village loosely based based on Williams’ own childhood home not far from Abergavenny, to be at Harry’s bedside following a stroke he suffered whilst on duty in the nearby signal box where he had worked since first coming to the area in the 1920’s. Interestingly Williams own father was also a signalman who worked a box in the locality, there is a strong autobiographical thread running through the story. The narrative traces the father's history from the time of his arrival in the area through to his ultimate demise, interweaved with Matthew’s own story of growing up, moving away and then returning under difficult circumstances.

The strain of Matthew’s return has several components, not only his father’s illness and being away from his own young family, but also the reactions and attitudes of other principal characters, particularly Morgan, an ex-colleague of Harry’s and long standing family friend. These bring to the surface tensions between the three main male characters rooted in fundamentally different attitudes to progress - both societal and personal.

A number of flaws were picked up by some members of the group, such as the sketchy treatment of female characters, in particular Matthew’s mother and Eira, Morgan’s daughter and his childhood friend. These relationships whilst clearly being important to Matthew weren’t particularly well developed and the actions and opinions of the females are never fully explained. Fault was also levelled at somewhat opaque sections of dialogue seemingly more intended to project an impressionistic snapshot of local patterns of speech rather than explaining what characters were thinking. Alternatively perhaps this was a conscious attempt to portray the difficulty of communicating across generations and between family members who have moved away from each both in terms of geography and social class – perhaps one of the borders the title is alluding to.

The arc of the story covers a period of great social and technological change in the locality including the General Strike, the demise of traditional industries, the rise in light manufacturing and growth in motor transport. The group agreed that the greatest strength of the book possibly lies in its qualities as a chronical of social history and as a gently paced portrait of family & community relationships seen against this backdrop. Despite its flaws most members enjoyed the book and would recommend it to other readers.

from Terry

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