Sunday, October 31, 2010

Andrew Cowan, Pig (1994)

Cowan, Andrew. Pig. London: Michael Joseph, 1994.
______. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994. (pictured below)
______. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995.
______. SanDiego: Harvest Books, 1997.
______. London: Sceptre, 2002. (my edition, pictured right)

Pig at Goodreads
Pig at IBList

Rating:     7/10

Following the death of his grandmother and his grandfather's removal to a retirement home, fifteen year-old Danny decides to take care of the aging pig that once belonged to his gran. With the help of his Indian girlfriend Surinder, Danny spends the summer caring for the pig as well as for his grandparents' land.

Pig is a tightly-written novel. It is constructed with economy and sensitivity, and is a true pleasure to read. The lack of a straightforward plot kept me at a distance for the first eighty or so pages, but I eventually grew involved with Danny, his relationship with Surinder and his grandparents' land. To a greater extent, even, I was mesmerized by the ravaged rural Scottish landscape.

The novel is set in an unnamed rural region, a once-prospering farmland, later industrial area that has become completely dilapidated. The farming region was bought out by industry, the land promising to yield a prosperous gain of mineral ore. When the land is revealed to contain a mass of useless clay, industry backs away and the remaining stripped farmlands are reduced to decay. At one point Danny is pulling the overgrown vegetables and weeds from his grandparents' land and remarks to Surinder that unattended the land grows wild; this is telling in that the soil is perfect for farming and it was industry that has ruined these fields. Quoting to Danny from her schoolbooks, Surinder tells him that the Victorian era saw a Scotland with a housing problem, an overpopulated land that saw houses overfilled, people pressed into any available quarter, the poor sewage overflowing and causing dysentery, a scene worse than anything she herself had seen in India. Though an unpleasant portrait, it nonetheless shows a land prosperous and filled with life, while Surinder and Danny can ride their bikes for miles without seeing a single soul.

Meanwhile the neighbouring towns are made up of run-down compound buildings overseen by a bureaucratic and unsympathetic housing system. The dingier, run-down flats are meted out to Indian and Pakistani residents. Racism is a problem in this region stuck in the past. Surinder is harassed as is Danny, by association. The two have become outsiders: the land shutting them out with their "No Trespassing" notices and the rough men that are continuously turning them away. Surinder cannot abide by a family whose only hope for her is a future filled with babies while she is seeking knowledge and a better, modern life. Danny's family sees his investment in the pig as wasted time, while his brother sits at home, drinking and refusing to do anything beyond the hoovering. The only person in Danny's family not mired in local inertia is his grandfather, who sits in a Home pining for his lost wife.

Surinder and Danny are sneaking about, facing challenges not only in farm work, the unwelcoming landscape and a region beaten down by constant rains, but also in their juvenile and innocent relationship. Cowan's quiet portrayal of this youthful union is strikingly real as the two are often awkward and clumsy, unable to express any level of emotion through anything but their clumsy gestures.

The novel's one real fault is in its distracting details. While many scenes are vividly and economically rendered, there are many others that are overly detailed. It becomes intrusive and can be irritating. These unnecessary details can be anything from the point a character might be staring at, to the fact that he or she is wiping the table, sloshing some tea. It reads as though the author was trying to add an extra thousand words to the manuscript.

Despite this minor qualm, Pig is a tight, well-written novel whose landscape is alone worth the investment. I was surprised by the lukewarm reviews I read on Goodreads, most emphasizing the strong writing but criticizing the lack of a linear plot. Many seem less than pleased with the comparison to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and I suppose that comparison, from a New York Times review, has unintentionally damaged the novel. Yes, there are elements of awakening adolescence, but the comparison is not terribly apropos.

Cowan's Pig is a surprisingly good find, and I hope that the novel finds a greater audience.

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