A murder case dating back to the 1980s, childhood memories of a beloved grandparent and teenage experiences of working on farms are some of the elements which combined to inspire award-winning author Ray Robinson’s latest novel.
The Mating Habits of Stags, which was published earlier this year and has been longlisted for the prestigious Portico Prize (often referred to as ‘the Booker of the North’), tells the story of seventysomething recently widowed former farmhand Jake who goes on the run in the Yorkshire Dales after committing a crime.
Robinson initially wrote a version of the story which became the BAFTA-nominated 2016 short film Edith starring Peter Mullan in the role of Jake, and later developed it into the longer form narrative. “I’d been tinkering with the original short story for years, about an ageing man’s secrets around the legitimacy of his son,” says the North Yorkshire-born writer who is now based in Derby.
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“Mixed with this was the story of Barry Prudom’s time hiding out in Dalby Forest after killing three people back in the Eighties. He managed to evade the police for 18 days by going to ground and relying on his survival skills. I was curious about Prudom’s mythology. What brought him to that point? What made him cross into the realm of violence? What lies did he tell himself to stay alive in that situation? Did he have a secret desire to be caught?”
Robinson also drew on what he remembered from his own time as a farmhand in his teens and the practical countryman skills of his grandfather “particularly the poaching and foraging scenes.”
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During the course of the novel, we get to know Sheila, a local woman who has befriended Jake. A divorcee with a problematic relationship with her adult daughter, she too is lonely and a little bit lost and her companionship and empathy help Jake to begin to come to terms with the death of his adored wife Edith. “I didn’t want this to be just another book about male violence or toxic masculinity,” says Robinson. “The second half focuses on Sheila, and how she reacts when she discovers Jake has killed another man and then turns up at her door. But Sheila has her own demons, and I was really excited by the possibilities this moral conflict opened up.”
The descriptions in the book of the Yorkshire landscape are particularly memorable and authentic – not suprisingly. “I grew up not far from Aysgarth, which is where Jake’s journey begins and ends,” says Robinson. “I spent a couple of weeks one winter retracing his steps west from Scarborough, through Dalby Forest, down Sutton Bank, across the Vale of Mowbray and back into Wensleydale.”
Robinson is currently working on adapting the novel into a feature-length screenplay and is delighted that the book has received so much positive attention, particularly from the Portico judges. “Most prizes seem to have little interest in voices from the north of England,” he says.
“But prizes like the Portico give readers a chance to discover voices that might otherwise never be heard among all the bombast of best sellers. Needless to say, I’m chuffed.”
Yorkshire Post Review: 4/5 for an ‘extraordinary novel’
By Yvette Huddleston
This extraordinary novel from award-winning author Ray Robinson gets right under the skin from the first paragraph.
Telling the affecting story of Jake, a widowed former farmhand in his seventies, grieving for his beloved wife Edith, who goes on the run through the Yorkshire Dales after committing a crime, it is a raw and unflinching meditation on love, loss and revenge.
This gentle, taciturn man has carried a secret for decades and is driven to an act of violence in the heat of the moment. Robinson explores truth and lies, guilt, rage and redemption with a clear-sighted, refreshing honesty in prose that is spare yet lyrical, presenting a slowly unfolding narrative that is hard-hitting and at the same time tender.
Jake’s fledgling relationship with Sheila, a divorced no-nonsense care worker who sees through the gruff exterior to the kind man within, allows a tantalising glimpse of what could be, but Robinson never goes for the trite or the neat.
Life is messy and complicated, people are complex and flawed, sometimes things are left unsaid, and the writing constantly faces up to those realities. As a race against time plays out against the backdrop of an unforgiving wintry Yorkshire landscape, hope and humanity emerge against all the odds in a bittersweet and starkly beautiful tale that lingers long in the memory.