Haweswater starts with a violent birth, includes a flood, and ends not long after an explosion. Yet, it is not a book that fits into the adventure genre. The story takes place in, and around, the town of Mardale, which really did exist. So did the Haweswater dam, a structure that takes on epic proportions in the story. Yet, this book could not truly be described as historical fiction.
Instead, it is an incredibly compelling work of fiction about the interconnections between people and the land they live on. I found myself falling into the story and wishing I could walk around the landscape described within it.
The main character is a woman named Janet. The author, Sarah Hall, built this character from an old legend about a mysterious woman named Janet Tree. Fiction and reality are intertwined like the roots of a plant in this beautiful, tragic, book.
The main character in Haweswater is Janet Lightburn. She comes into the world in a violent wave of blood as her mother struggled to give birth to her. Ella Lightburn, a devout, religious, woman, swore and cursed God while she was in labor. Immediately after giving birth to her daughter, Ella got out of bed and dragged her still bleeding body to the church. It was more important for her to ask God to forgive her cursing His name than to hold her newborn daughter.
Ella’s husband, Samuel, had to call out to Ella (who could not be dissuaded from going to the church) in order to find out what to name their daughter. From that moment on, Samuel doted on his beautiful daughter. The two had a strong connection of the type that did not require a lot of conversation.
This initial resentment that Ella had for her daughter, Janet, doesn’t entirely abate. The struggle between Ella and Janet replays itself, over and over again, all through Janet’s life. Ella is constantly wishing that Janet would stop behaving in ways that were unconventional. Janet has been taught to help her father with the lambs and often does so while wearing men’s breeches. Janet was born with a force of will as strong as her mother’s. When the two women are in the same room, the tension is similar to that of a storm that is coming, but has yet to break.
The other difficulty that Janet has is that she is very smart. Her father encourages her to learn, to question, and to think about things. Instead of trying to fit in, Janet uses problem solving. She is completely unafraid to state her opinions and never considers whether or not what she is saying, doing, or wearing is something that others would find acceptable for a women. She is entirely herself.
The people of Mardale are mostly farmers. Families have lived in the village, and worked the land, for generations. There is a history here in the buildings, the fields, and even the streams, that was never written down. It is alive. The farmers can tell the weather based on subtle clues that few others would be able to understand.
Janet’s younger brother, Isaac, is incredibly in tune with the rivers and streams of the area. He enjoys sticking his head under the water in order to study the fish that live under it. He immerses as much of himself as possible into the waters even in winter, when he has to crack the ice to do it. Ella believes she has seen omens that indicate that Isaac will drown, and she is constantly terrified about that horror coming to pass.
One day, a stranger comes to town. He drives there in a fancy sports car. Children gather around him, curious. Jack Liggett is clean cut, wearing a brand new (and expensive) suit. He is as out of place in Mardale as anyone possibly could be. He tells the children to gather their fathers for a meeting. Once gathered, Jack Liggett, in a very polished and “showman” like way, informs them that they will all be losing their homes and livelihood.
Mardale is located too close to where the Haweswater Dam will be built. In a short amount of time (too short for most of the villagers) the entire town will be flooded as the Dam collects water. There is no point in arguing, the decision has already been made. Just like that, generations of history will be washed away, forgotten.
Janet, naturally, is quite irate about this situation. She tries to fight against it, on behalf of the town. This involves talking with (and arguing with) Jack Liggett. Janet manages to get a few, small, concessions (such as allowing the people of Mardale, and the farmers, to stay on their land for as long as possible). Ultimately, the town is doomed, and she eventually comes to realize it.
In the meantime, there is this dramatic “dance” going on between Janet and Jack. There is a strong attraction, but they also hate each other. They are on opposing sides of the Haweswater project. As time goes on, they grudgingly recognize their attraction for each other, and a reluctant, yet extremely passionate romance, begins.
Of course, they are as doomed as the town of Mardale. I’m leaving out quite a bit, in order to avoid “spoilers”. Hawewswater is a book that I will be keeping and intend to read again.
Sometimes, authors create landscapes that I cannot help but want to walk around in once more. Sarah Hall does that well, and provides dynamic, unique, characters. There is also a portion that gives insight into what it was like to be one of the workers who built the Haweswater Dam. Haweswater is also a winner of the British Commonwealth Award. I highly recommend it!