cover image The Borrowed Hills

The Borrowed Hills

Scott Preston. Scribner, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-6680-5067-5

Preston’s blistering debut takes place in the farthest reaches of northern England, on “cloud-eaten” fells battered by wind and inhabited mostly by sheep. There’s nothing much for narrator Steve Elliman to do when he returns to his elderly dad’s farm after spending years away as a lorry driver up and down the coast, except tend the family flock and think (“I’ve stared at a mountain so long I thought I was one”). When it turns out the sheep must be slaughtered to slow the spread of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the bloodletting and carcass burning is brutal but quick, handled by teams of men in white suits. William Hearne, the Ellimans’ hardhearted and taciturn neighbor who also lost his flock to the “squaddies,” enlists Steve in enacting a kind of justice by stealing hundreds of prize sheep from a farm that caters to “offcomers,” or tourists. Steve then begins working for William, tending to the stolen sheep on the vast hills of his neighbor’s farm. He’s a shepherd, after all, and shepherds need sheep to care for, but he’s also drawn to William’s wife, Helen, and he stays at the farm until trouble comes, ensnaring them and William’s son, Danny, in a violent spiral. Preston’s brilliant tonal range extends from epic heroism, as the men scramble after sheep on shale knee-deep in muck, to uncompromising realism (“Mucking out was a way of life and we were finding out what the end of that looked like”). This dark and inspired tale pulses with life. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW Literary. (June)