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Nothing but Grass.
Chatto & Windus, 2015, HB, 416pp, £16.99. , 978-0701187859.
Vignettes of brutality pepper Will Cohu’s first novel, set in the Lincolnshire Wolds. An attempted hanging, a graphic animal slaughter, and the drawn-out death of a young mother encircle the central event — the murder and burial of a fellow labourer by Norman Tanner, who utilises his spade for both purposes. At the time the crime seems motiveless, perhaps even unintended (Norman’s frigid reaction is bizarre and unfathomable) but nevertheless in the years to come the dead man’s sphere expands and begins to envelop its perpetrator.
Cohu paints a jumbled picture of life in the imaginary town of Ranby, ambitiously tackling a century of events spanning the First World War and the 2007–2008 financial crash, and scooping up characters involved in and affected by everything from dogging to dementia. There is an inherent blackness to the novel; an equally bleak eye is cast over family life (with its generous smatterings of abusive teenagers and extramarital affairs) and society in general (rife with racism, sexism, and substance abuse). Neither do the characters demonstrate much moral fortitude, and, although the absence of a protagonist is a little unnerving, it does conjure up an interesting bitterness to the reader.
It’s not without its frustrations: the more pedantic among us might legitimately object to the contrived dialogue between the younger characters (extending to some uncomfortable text transcripts) and the flagrant disregard for confidentiality displayed by the local GP! The snaking storylines are so scattered that at times they seem to slither away altogether, and the reader is left flicking through previous pages in the vain hope of distinguishing ‘Joe’ from ‘Pete’ — and what’s the connection with Emily again? As a result certain characters feel flimsy, and we are left with a sense of never really having got under anyone’s skin.