The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I didn’t go looking for a second book club, but a Discord community I’m in started one up, and The Gallows Pole looked interesting enough to be worth manipulating my timetable a little to be able to fit it in. From the blurb, it sounded like a fast-paced historical crime novel which might suit my tastes for all things heist. The Gallows Pole wasn’t like that at all, but I still had a very good time with it and I’m glad B2 introduced me to it, as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

King David Hartley is the man’s name, said Jack Bentley. And if you don’t know it then you can’t run the woods like you say you do because everyone knows Bell Hole belongs to the Hartleys, and the moor above it and the sheep and the cows that graze them moors and the Hartleys own the sky above it too, and the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

Some of the things that happen in The Gallows Pole are extremely nasty (seriously, check out the content warnings before you read if you are at all squeamish!), but Benjamin Myers’ prose is always rhythmic and enthralling. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kept drawing me in, but The Gallows Pole was written not quite like anything else I’ve read before. Deighton’s final scene is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible. Granted, it might be more difficult for readers with vivid visual imaginations or who feel the pain a character feels to get lost in the play of words next to each other, but for those of us who don’t, it really works.

Benjamin Myers makes unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Despite David Hartley’s violence, arrogance, homophobia, the reader wants to spend more time with him. Whether its the sections told from his perspective or the third-person narrative, he maintains and rewards that interest. Even lesser characters with serious flaws are still given their fair share of story. Actually sympathetic characters (like Grace) are rarely in the foreground, but Benjamin Myers uses them to good effect to keep The Gallows Pole from becoming an entirely bleak narrative.

Without you I’m certain this valley will fall fallow. The coining will die off and the men will lose their will to fight because no man will go back to the loom after having the taste of gold on his tongue.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

It’s not surprising that The Gallows Pole won a literary award. This is a book with definite themes, of class struggle, social mobility, history. If I were going to write an essay, I’d probably begin with something about inevitability and the enduring of myth. I also appreciated the structure, how the end mirrored the beginning.

The Gallows Pole was beautifully written and cleverly constructed, but those content warnings I mention would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone who might not know what they were getting into.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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