On the Black Hill is a 1982 novel by Bruce Chatwin, author of three novels and various works of nonfiction (I believe the most notable is In Patagonia, a travelogue I hope to read someday). It tells the story of Benjamin and Lewis Jones, identical twins born on a Welsh farm at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel takes the reader from the story of their parents through to the time the book was published, covering the political, cultural, and social changes of a century as they filter down to rural Wales. But it’s also a very close and sometimes stifling portrait of a family, and especially the pair of twins, during that period.
Benjamin and Lewis are the kind of identical twins that really have something going on between them. As children, they have a secret twin language, and can’t stand to be separated from each other for even brief periods. At around age 9, Benjamin falls ill, and though he recovers he will always remain the sickly, indoor twin. This difference between them pulls them closer by making them more complementary to each other: “[I]t was Benjamin who poured the tea, while Lewis cut the loaf; Lewis who fed the dogs, and Benjamin the fowls. …[A]sked how they divided their labour…each replied, ‘I reckon we done it atween we.’”
Their mother, Mary, is clearly at the root of much of the closeness of the family. On the very first page of the novel we find out that not only have Benjamin and Lewis decided to spend their entire lives together, never marrying or leaving home, but that they have “slept side by side, in their parents’ bed,” for the past forty-two years, and that the bed is really their mother’s, still hung with cretonne and
Continue reading On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin