The unreliable narrator. How much of what he says is true? What does he hold back? Is there ever a time you should take his word on a given event, or is the wisest thing to do turn around and accept the opposite as given truth? As these kind of characters go, nineteen-year-old misanthropic oddball Sam Marsdyke is a whopper of of an unreliable narrator. Even as his soul turns dark and sour, you want- desperately need- to believe this troubled boy’s story.
Sam swears he didn’t try to rape schoolgirl Katie Carmichael in detention as a teen, but his parents- nay, the whole Yorkshire community, believe different. The incident has made Sam quite the outcast, and, maybe because of it, he has developed a revulsion for his peers and people in general. Sam is the farmer son of a cowed mother and an abusive, gruff father, and he develops a rapport with the animals on the farm- Sal, his sheepdog puppy, and even the livestock.
His conversations with animals and even inanimate objects are offbeat and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The Yorkshire dialect is difficult to wrap your head around, but it’s not really a very tough read- you can usually riddle out what a word means from the context. When Sam meets Jo, a newcomer to ‘God’s Own Country’ and also an off-limits fifteen-year-old girl, it’s obsession at first sight. Jo and Sam strike up a casual friendship, not so casual for Sam, who is completely enamored with her, but the fun doesn’t last long as Sam becomes increasingly obsessed and volatile.
This book has two main plot threads going for it- the modernization of rural farmlands all over (but specifically in England,) which exasperates Sam and his working man father, and Sam’s descent into madness, culminating in the arrival of Jo and her family. The narrative really reminded me of ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe, in that you’re sucked into the world of a flippant, charismatic madman. The first-person narration really crackles and the psychology behind the character’s madness is pretty legit too.
The only real issue I have with “God’s Own Country” (re-titled “Out Backward” for its US publication) was it was so grim it left me feeling sucked dry by the end. Sam’s sardonic voice alleviates the misery for a while, but as he goes down the rabbit-hole mental health wise you’re left shaking your head in horror. One Librarything user discussed a ‘lack of redemption,’ and she’s absolutely right.
Sam never really learns anything from his experience, though he does manage learn to adapt to his increasingly horrid circumstances by the book’s end. Which may be realistic, but it’s a lot to swallow. “God’s Own Country” was in also unnerving in that it made me sympathize with an increasingly depraved personality. A very bad person, or a person who does very bad things? You can decide for yourself if an when you decide to read this troubling and brilliant book.