On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

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 covered by the same patchwork quilt she slept under for her whole married life. Nothing at all has changed in the house since her death, and the brothers miss her and think about her every day, decades later.

The novel surely falls into the “epic family tale” genre, though how epic it is is up for debate; the Joneses lead quiet lives. The twins and their farm are all but encased in amber as the world changes around them, and for years they don’t even go into town. But the farm is built up, the neighbors change, and by the 1970s the family is finally beginning to change as well. But not the twins themselves. They are as stuck with each other, for better or worse, as each of us is stuck with ourselves. When a friend asks Benjamin some religious questions, including what he imagines hell to be like, he reveals how disturbing they really find their twinned nature:

‘Something like London, I expect.’ He screwed up his nose and sniggered. Only when she probed a little further did she discover that his concept of the life-to-come—whether in Heaven or in Hell—was a blank and hopeless void. How could you believe in an immortal soul, when your own soul, if you had one, was the image of your brother across the breakfast table?

Both twins said they hated being mistaken for one another. Both recalled mistaking their own reflection for their other half: ‘And once,’ Lewis added, ‘I mistook my own echo.’ But when she steered her enquiry in the direction of the bedroom, she drew an identical, innocent blank.

In many ways the brothers’ relationship bears the hallmarks of an abusive one. Lewis is never able to be happy that he did not marry and raise a family of his own, something that interested him but not Benjamin (who appears to be gay) for many years. The jealousy and possessiveness are just unbearable. But leaving each other is no more an option for them than it was for their mother before, whose own sister rejected her pleas for safe harbor from a physically and emotionally abusive husband. “‘…Father always said you were headstrong and impulsive…No one can say I didn’t warn you…But wedlock is wedlock…a binding sacrament…and you must stick to your husband through thick and thin…’” Birth, apparently, is at least as binding.

There is much of interest here: rural life throughout the twentieth century, all the upheaval of that time period, family, class, religion, and politics. Chatwin has an unobtrusive style heavy on both description and dialogue, much of which reflects the small education and nonstandard-English background of the locals. The land and animals get loving attention throughout, leaving me looking forward to more of Chatwin in his role as a travel writer.