Portico Prize Shortlist: ‘The Mating Habits of Stags’

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The Mating Habits of Stags enraptured my imagination from the very beginning. Robinson’s use of language is so captivating, with words effortlessly stitched together creating thought provoking scenes of the Yorkshire Dales and the Moors in which the book is set. 

Jake is introduced to us as a 73-year-old ex-shepherd, whose life on the Yorkshire Moors has consisted of love, loss and vengeance. We meet him after he has just murdered a man named Charles Monroe in a care home and is now on the run from both the police and the son of Charles seeking retribution. As the story unfolds, we travel back in time to discover the relationship between Jake’s late wife Edith and their son William.

Robinson’s writing is truly exquisite with the perfect balance of lyrical and sparing narrative, compelling the use of your imagination. 

We meet Sheila, a woman who has grown close to Jake following the death of Edith. They meet in a local pub and it is clear that perhaps Sheila’s feelings for Jake are not so easily reciprocated. Robinson expertly intertwines the story of Sheila throughout the novel; giving her the space to unravel her own story. Upon hearing the of Jakes murder, she calls to question her morals. Should she help the man who has grown close to her, or turn him in, knowing what he is capable of?

Jake intends to travel back to his home, Dove Cottage to spend one more night in it before his capture. As he moves through the Yorkshire Dales, it is clear what a lifetime of farming does, etching the landscape into his mind acting as a map for him to follow. Robinson depicts the landscape and wildlife so perfectly in this book, creating a painting in your mind of the Yorkshire Dales. There is enough description that as Jake moves through the landscape, struggling against the harsh weather we are able to follow him through his journey back home with a closer understanding of his surroundings and challenges he faced. 

The prose of the book is unpunctuated and at first was hard to get on with, but as I delved deeper into the book, the dialogue seemingly flowed between characters. There is a strong sense of northern dialect which reflects the background of Robinson, born in North Yorkshire himself. Robinson’s writing is truly exquisite with the perfect balance of lyrical and sparing narrative, compelling the use of your imagination. 

Jake is a truly fascinating character. He is able to survive out in the wild on his own and yet as he moves through the landscape memories of Edith and William come flooding back with such raw emotion that you can’t help but see a softer side to Jake. In one memory, Jake and Sheila go for a walk with Sheila exclaiming how she loves to be out in nature. But Jake poses a thought, he claims that everything you can see is touched by farmers and livestock so it is not natural. I suppose what Robinson aims to highlight is the brutal hand that humans play upon landscapes, shaping them to fulfil their every need and not allowing them to exist in their truly natural state. 

Robinson aims to highlight is the brutal hand that humans play upon landscapes

The tale is one that encapsulates a life of guilt and things that go unsaid. Robinson beautifully calls to question human conscience and why certain things go unsaid. Personally, I find that any hidden truth continues to linger and remains in the air like a helium balloon floating in space. It is only when those truths are spoken and actions forgiven that you can truly live a life without guilt. Perhaps that was Robinson’s aim all along. To merely provide perspective on a life filled with guilt and unspoken truths, imploring us to do the opposite. 

The Portico Prize awards £10,000 to the book that best evokes the spirit of the North of England. Palatinate is reviewing the shortlist and a winner will be announced on 23rd January 2020.

Image: Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash

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