Duncton Wood: A Novel About Mole-Love and Mole-Life


So this review comes to us from a request.

A friend at work told me I should read this book and then he lent me a copy.  He told me almost no one makes it past the first twenty pages when he lends it out. “Oh boy!” (Let the sarcasm drippppp…..Good!) That was my first thought. Another bad book that someone wants me to waste my time on because they think it’s “beautiful” or “meaningful.” I know how that ends up…

I trusted you, Oprah! I read “The Road” after you told me it was such a great book. Hmph. A book because it’s got two covers and some pages in the middle, maybe. There was definitely no story in there anywhere.

But I digress…

Duncton Wood actually is a great story. I’ll admit, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. If this hadn’t been a suggestion, I might never have read it. I just don’t find myself salivating at the idea of reading books about a bunch of animals. Likely that’s because the few I have read were…not memorable in the least. In fact, the more I think about it, I wonder if this wasn’t the first? Ah well, details, details…

This is actually a very charming story about a mole love story. And yes, the novel WILL trick you. I’ll admit that up front. You begin from page one with our hero, the very lovable Bracken, but something happens at the start of the book. The author changes his mind, he whips you backwards in time and blam! no more Bracken… not until Chapter 5, page 43.  But accept it, embrace it, run with it….if you put aside your indignation with the author at teasing you with the main character and then taking him away, you’ll realize that Bracken has stepped back to give Rebecca a moment in the spotlight.

Of course, even before we meet her fully, we have to spend some quality time with her parents and learn a little about how her father came to be the leader of the Molemmunity? the Molehood? Moledom? – the Mole System, at any rate.

When Bracken finally returns, he returns as a pup. We get to follow him as he grows into the adult mole we glimpsed at the start. This is good because we get deep into the character development (which is the same for anymole as it is for anyone else.) Although they’re animals, and Horwood does a superb job of maintaining that sense of animalness, he still has no choice but to personify the moles if he wants anyone to follow his story. Otherwise we’re reading a National Geographic special on the mating habits of the Talpa Europaea, A.K.A the European Mole.

Bracken endures insults and beatings as the runt of the litter. He grows up learning to keep his nose low and his butt in the shadows. But he’s got the heart of an explorer! And oh! As Bracken grows up, he ventures away from the familiar system and enters the Ancient System. Granted, there’s a lot of violence and hate that helps drive him there, but that’s something you’ll have to read on your own.

The story from then on becomes one of survival, personal growth, and a search for a spiritual identity. Bracken is lost and alone but he’s living. He’s out there searching for himself, trying to learn from all that’s around him. And in the process, we – the reader- get to learn LOTS about their wood. For instance, there seems to be a running commentary about the season, what plants are growing and where they’re the most prolific, and how the weather is doing.

I won’t lie. That’s a bit boring for me. I skimmed a few areas of description. I don’t care that Rebecca has to stop and admire a “stray wild honeysuckle that entwined itself among a strand of brambles.” Now… when this honeysuckle is the antedote for the magical poison that befalls Fredalupe, then I’ll be ready to read about the honeysuckle entwining itself wherever it’s entwining itself. But until that point, I would rather she stop prancing in the field and get on with the action.

However, the book has such a strong, compelling story that this is a very minor irritation. It’s not a happy story, either. I should warn those of you who are reading this and getting excited for Mole-filled fun. This is a dark, strikingly honest kind of story. Characters did things in this book that made me want to fling it across the room and then chase it so I could rip the pages out. And yet, at the same time, I wanted to read on to make sure something happened to make up for what I’d just experienced. If you’re gonna prick me with that toothpick, you better damn well give me the cheesy sample it’s holding.

And there are several toothpick stabbings in this book. But read on! Our heroes survive, they grow, they become stronger for all their suffering. They show us that perseverance isn’t always voluntary, sometimes it’s the only option aside from death. Life simply isn’t prancing in meadows and coddling honeysuckles for everyone. For some, life is hard and painful. But the most beautiful aspect of this novel is that even those who suffered found their redeeming light. In the end, they find the peace in themselves that they always wanted but couldn’t see.

It’s a pretty deep book. It covers personal suffering and growth as well as the decline of a society. You get to see how fear breaks apart a functioning, happy society and drags good people down into something unrecognizable. Left to your own devices, you might have lived quietly, content with what you had. But with a little evil slinking around in the background, you might be pushed beyond your morals and beliefs. You might cross that line into cruelty and become what you feared in others.

This story really addresses how weak the individual is against mass influence and how strong one has to become if they want to maintain their individuality. For many, it’s easy to lose themselves in the crowd and just become a follower with no interest in who they are following. For Bracken, it was both a blessing and a curse to be so isolated. He was able to discover himself at the cost of companionship.

Horwood rewards Bracken’s perseverance with both love and friendship. Although,  his friendship with the scholar Boswell is much easier for him to understand and accept. In regards to his relationship with Rebecca, you just wanted to strangle Bracken for being so thick-headed.  But Boswell’s support is unwavering. Once he meets Bracken, he remains by his side, loyal and trustworthy.

These little moles go on some amazing treks and face some terrifying challenges to reach their goals. It’s a very epic adventure that spans Moleyears…… or just a really… long time….for a mole.

I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and sincerity in the novel, and not so pleasantly (but still very) surprised by the level of evil included.  There’s simply too much to cover in one blog post to give you a truly accurate view of how broad and all-encompassing this story is…it’s truly just epic.

And best of all… Horwood uses attribution and quotation marks and *gasp* complete sentences. It’s like he’s actually writing something for other people to read. Yeah… that’s right, chew on that, McCarthy. Your nameless man’s “epic journey” in some vague part of post-apocalyptic America has got nothing on Bracken and Boswell’s journey down the freezing, wormless slopes of Mt. Siabod in Wales during a blizzard!

For all you McCarthy readers: For the love of God, put down “The Road” and pick up a copy of “Duncton Wood.”  You’ll save yourself a lot of disappointment and anger. Oh, and wasted time. Yeah, you’ll save that. God’s not gonna give me that time back…. See what you robbed from me, McCarthy!? Damn you!!

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Comments (1)

genjiApril 9th, 2010 at 9:37 AM

Nice review. I’m nearing the end of DW. I do mean to read The Road but I’ve been warned how bleak and depressing it is so I figured I could wait a while… I picked up DW in preference (a book I’ve been meaning to read for years) for something a bit more uplifting.

I’m glad I did now.


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