Last month’s 1929 Club had a wealth of wonderful titles to choose from, and inevitably I ran out of time before I could read everything I wanted to from the year. What was particularly frustrating, however, was realising that books I had on the TBR were from that year and I hadn’t spotted this!. “Walking in Berlin” was one book I missed, which I really should read soon; and another was one which lovely JacquiWine gave me last Christmas, and had been glaring at me ever since. So as it was also a novella, I decided that now would be the perfect time to pick it up – and I did actually read this during our club reading week but am still playing catch up with the reviews!

“Hill” by Jean Giono and translated by Paul Eprile (NYRB, *when* will you name the translator on the cover!!!) was the author’s first published work. A mainly self-educated man, he lived most of his life in south-eastern France and having survived WW1 and Verdun he became a life-long pacifist. As far as I can tell, much of his work is rooted in nature and landscape, and certainly in “Hill” those aspects play a very powerful part.

Set in a small hamlet in Provence, the story is based around the handful of people who live there; in four little white houses live twelve people (and there is Gagou, a simpleton who turned up from nowhere). Gondran and his wife Marguerite have her father, old Janet, living with them; there are Jaume and his daughter Ulalie; and the households of Mauras and Arbaud. The small village is isolated, with the inhabitants depending on the products of their own hard work for survival. But there have been bad omens: a suspicious black cat has been seen locally; a storm passes over and leaves the village silent; and Janet’s health is declining, whilst he raves and predicts disaster. So when the fountain runs dry, it seems that he may have been right…

As the villagers struggle to cope with the lack of water, it seems that the elements are ranged against them, and the villagers feel threatened by the very landscape around them. As Janet’s health deteriorates, the black cat moves into his house and the village is threatened by another catastrophe. Is the very land turning against them? And what drastic action might they have to take to appease it?

This kind of thing, it always starts with somebody who sees farther than the rest of us. When someone sees farther than the rest of us, it’s because there’s something a little out of kilter in their brain. Sometimes it could be by nothing at all, just by a hair, but from that moment, it’s all over. A horse, it’s no longer a horse. A blade of grass, it’s no longer a blade of grass. Everything we can’t see, they see. Outside the shapes, the outlines we’re familiar with, for them there’s something extra floating around, like a cloud.

For a slim novella, “Hill” certainly has a lot packed into it, and one of the most distinctive elements was Giono’s writing. In his world, nature is almost a sentient being, and whatever the villagers do to it (whether cutting down a plant or killing a lizard) will have repercussions and possible reparations. His vision is in many ways ahead of its time, recognising that humans are part of an interconnected nature, and certainly that’s a view of the world which many more would accept nowadays.

Earth and nature are portrayed as almost a physical entity against which man may have to fight, and Giono also demonstrates how dependant we humans are on the vagaries of climate; that’s something we’re being reminded of nowadays, but in a smaller setting like the village here, lack of water or crops that won’t grow or other existential threats are more immediate, and the superstitious nature of the villagers make this even more complicated. It’s a sobering read which really did remind me how small we are in comparison to nature, but it also made me angry again at how much of a mess we’re making of this planet.

As I mentioned, Giono’s writing is distinctive and really memorable; and he brings the natural world alive, almost anthropomorphising the earth by the way he writes about it, which I felt brought the relationship between humans and the land into much sharper focus. It’s also a very lyrical way of writing, and the narrative was completely compelling. Although this is a short work (I’m counting it as a novella for this month), it’s brimming with both human experience and thought-provoking ideas. The descriptions of the land around the village are stunning, and the book is gripping from start to dramatic finish.

When I picked this book up to read it, I really had no idea what to expect as it was my first Giono; and I was blown away by it. Really, it’s quite a singular work – I’m not sure I’ve read a book like it – and it’s certainly left me keen to read more of the author’s writing. Giono was obviously a highly talented author and I have Jacqui to thank for my introduction to his work – loved this book!