Today I’m going to chat to you about a slip of a novel that packs a hefty emotional punch. I’ve had ‘The Cone Gatherers’ sitting on my shelf for a while now after it was recommended by my fellow book lover Ed (who, now I am typing this, I think maybe I should interview for this site I mention his amazing recommendations so much!) First published in 1955 this small but perfectly formed read is a master class in keeping your prose sparse, every word chosen for a reason, no flowery language or overly wrought emotional scenes. The reader is presented with information on a need to know basis and so much is left to then draw out from the spaces between the text.
Set in Scotland we find ourselves in the grounds of a large country house, we will remain there for the length of the book, what we are about to experience staying tightly within the confines of that piece of land and the time frame of 5 Autumnal days. With war raging throughout Europe a lot of men have left the small town outside of the estate, and those who are left are either too old or not fit enough to fight. That is apart from the conscientious objectors, they have been sent to this part of the country to work for the forestry commission so that they are still part of the mechanics of war, even if only a small cog in the machine. The author, Robin Jenkins, was himself a conscientious objector and was sent to work for the commission, a past that patently bleeds into this novel at several points.
We meet Calum and Neil, two brothers who have been sent to work in the estate grounds as cone gatherers, shimmying up trees all day long to fill sacks worth of the seeds that will replenish forests across the country after the war is over. Calum, the younger brother, is a hunchback who possibly has a learning difficulty. He is an incredibly sensitive man who has a real connection to the nature around him, an innocent outlook and a smile that rarely fades. His older brother Neil is much quieter, the pressure of being the support for Calum a constant weight upon him meaning he works harder than he ever would if he only had himself to care for, his rheumatic fingers and tired body fighting against him every day. Peaceful doing their jobs and living their life in the small cabin they have been given in the forest, unrest soon walks into their lives.
Duror has been the gameskeeper at the estate for his whole life. He lives in a cottage with his wife and mother in law, a claustrophobic situation forced on him due to an unknown incident leaving his wife bed bound after only a couple of years of marriage, and has little desire to be around either of them at the end of each day. As he spends time walking around the land he has cared for he often sees the brothers and the site of Calum leaves him cold. He cannot stand the look of the man, to the point of it almost making him sick, professing how he has always hated anything ‘misshapen’. He makes it his task to get these brothers out of the estate, no matter how he will have to go about it, and we follow his plans tensely, the atmosphere in the novel crackling like there is lightning in the air.
Jenkins really has written this book masterfully and I can see why it is studied as a classic in Scotland, it would be great if it could be rolled out across the UK. The central themes running through it of sacrifice, religion, innocence coming up against evil are ones that are age old and will carry on being discussed as long as there are mouths to do so. His plot is tight and you feel you know these men, but there are some moments, one in particular, where he makes it clear he is not going to lay everything on a plate for you. There is one spectacular scene in the book that in a sense is not a scene at all, an event takes place off of the page that has great consequence for all, yet Jenkins does not patronise the reader, I think he wants you to work just as much at this as he has.
I love it when a novel engages me as much as this did, leaves me thinking long after I have finished but is also incredibly accessible and enjoyable to read. The characters are as multifaceted as the experience of reading it is. The edition of the book I read did have an excellent introduction to the book in it and I want to issue a warning – DO NOT read this until after you have finished the story itself, as it tells you how the novel ends incredibly frustratingly! The introduction states that the ending itself is obvious but I do not think that is necessarily the case so my suggestion is skip past those pages and go back to them when all is said and done!
If you are a book grouper I think this would make a great choice for discussion (and handily is not too long, almost novella like!) which is always great for group reading. If you do choose to read this for your group or just yourself do let me know how you get on with it by all the usual means, comments below or tweet over on @dogeared_reads
Until next time you lot, happy reading!
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins £9.99 (Canongate)