The controversial construction of the Haweswater dam started in 1929, after Parliament passed an Act giving the Manchester Corporation permission to build the reservoir to supply water for the urban conurbations of north-west England. At the time, there was public outcry about the decision, as the valley of Mardale was populated by the farming villages of Measand and Mardale Green and the construction of the reservoir would mean that these villages would be flooded and lost and the population would have to be moved.
Sarah Hall shows the searing emotional impact through the lives of the Lightburn family. Sam and Ella Lightburn breed sheep, and have lived in the valley all their lives. Their daughter Janet has just reached adulthood and played an active role in lambing and other farm labor all her life. Her much-younger brother , Isaac, is known for his love of the water and wildlife. Into their lives comes Jack Liggett, a representative of Manchester City Waterworks, who breaks the news of pending construction to the stunned villagers. Janet is a very strong woman and not about to sit idly by while her homeland is destroyed. But she hadn’t bargained on the feelings that Jack would stir up within her. And he hadn’t expected to become so immersed in the life of the village, nor in its beauty. Their romance unfolds even as villagers begin to move away, and crews of engineers begin construction on the dam.
Hall’s prose is magnificent and filled with rich description. I felt immersed in the countryside:
In July and August the farmers in the valley sweltered under the dry sun as they worked, rolling and collecting hay, and transporting it in carts to barns and out-sheds, tying the bales down under tarpaulin for storage. Chaff and pollen-dust filled the warm air and floated around on the summer currents, and the smell of dry scorching grass was heavy and sweet in their nostrils. It was a good time of year. … Around dawn the air was fresh and soft, the temperature rose during the day with the sun’s ascension and passage between the fells. The men took off their shirts and their backs reddened, skin peeled and finally became tanned. Their forearms were burned a deep brown, masking the veins which had previously been seen easily, bluely, under their pale, northern-English skin. (p. 124)
And yet in the midst of such beauty, this is a classic literary tragedy, in the manner of Hamlet or other more famous works. The prologue makes it clear the villagers were powerless against Manchester City Waterworks. But the impact was more extensive, and deeper, than I had ever imagined. And Hall plays out the tragedy with drama and suspense. Each character plays a vital role as both a character and a symbol. I’m amazed this was a debut novel. Haweswater won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best First Book Award in 2003, and is most deserving of such an honor.