book-reviews

Duncton Wood

by William Horwood

Rating: ★★★

Duncton Wood is a story about the mole community which lives under the titular wood. More abstractly, it is a story about the ebb and flow of an ancient faith in a community, and the subtle influences which allow this religion to do good, saving the well-meaning. While such a brief might appear designed for some clear-cut moral lessons, Duncton Wood avoids painting the world in black and white, giving even the monstrous characters a story which can and must be met with empathy, and shading the heroes with moral failings.

An incautious parent might think that a story about moles would be fine material for a young child, but they would be best advised to think twice. The lives of Horwood's moles are brutal. Murder, rape, tyranny and infanticide are all featured, with chilling realism cutting in to the tales of blessed questing moles and community leaders. This is no pastoral vision, and the heroic aspects of the tale are tempered with both pacifism and moral ambiguity.

As grey as Duncton Wood is, its world seems to almost become too everyday. The simple central values to the religion are the same vague well-meaning ones expounded by everyone from Confucius to Jesus, with little dressing to make them more appealing. The tale of two lovers long separated is told all too accurately, and the final revelation of the Seventh Book feels somehow without impact in comparison with the life-story already delivered.

Not in any way a failure, Duncton Wood failed to hook me significantly. It would be unfair to call it tedious, but neither could I say it was gripping. Older readers might feel more connection to the lifespans covered, younger readers might learn more from them.