The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.
I had very mixed feelings about it.
I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.
I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward
Here are some of my main takeaways…
Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*
The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.
The descriptions are intense and vivid.
‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’
Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.
‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’
(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)
Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.
Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.
Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.
It wore me down.
Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*
It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)
So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.
I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.