This book has been out of print since the 90s now, which goes to show how quickly things disappear in the print world. But when I was a teenager, there were six Duncton books that came out (two trilogies) and they were all best-sellers. Which was funny, because they were all gigantically long novels about moles. Yes, moles. The little animals that dig tunnels and eat worms.
How did they get to be bestsellers? Was there nothing better to do in the 80s? (Well, it was before the internet, so we probably had a longer attention span, which would help.) Actually, the secret was that William Horwood was an exceptionally good writer.
Duncton Wood is the first one that was written and was probably designed to stand by itself, because it’s fairly self-contained. It details the life and times of two moles – Bracken and Rebecca – who lived in the system of Duncton, and all the things that befell them.
It’s hard to explain if you don’t actually read it, but Horwood’s prose is stunningly beautiful. He’s adopted the voice of ancient mole telling us a legend. So everything that happens is given a gravitas and weight that lifts it up above many animal tales. Also, this is a story that is definitely written for adults. It’s not gratuitous by any stretch of the imagination, but it contains some moments of sexuality and strong violence.
But I think the strength of the story, and the thing that Horwood successfully tapped into is the spiritual element that he gives the moles. Right in the centre of the Duncton system on the top of a hill, stands the Stone. It is a huge standing stone which is not actually their god, but representative of “The Stone”, the being that they believe looks over them and cares for them.
The Stone is a slightly weird combination of several religions, so you’ll be able to recognise elements of Christianity, Buddhism and other things. But what spoke to me most about the story is that it wrestled with nearly every major spiritual question that mankind has faced – but by giving us moles as characters, Horwood can deal with the issues in a way that is slightly removed from the real world.
So, for instance, when the story opens in Duncton, the system has fallen into a situation where nobody really has a connection with the Stone any more. Life is just a regular routine of mating, fighting and eating worms. If that’s not a metaphor for life in the Western world, I don’t know what is. But there are several moles out there, like Bracken and Rebecca, that believe that there is more to life than this. It’s this element of the story that most spoke to me.
For the most part, mainly because of the strength of the prose, the story is feeling gripping. There are several patches where I feel things could have been trimmed, and I also tend to hit the middle of long books and want them to be over, but when the arc is completed, and the full novel is complete – the story is immensely satisfying.
So if you come across a copy of Duncton Wood in a second-hand bookstore, and you have the time required to do it justice, I’d pick it up. And you never know, it might just come back into print. William Horwood just released a new fantasy novel last year (Hyddenworld: Spring), which I’ll try to review soon) and if that does okay, there might be a renewed interest in his other books. We’ll see.
4 ½ out of 5.