[Review] Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard — Daunish Negargar

Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard marks one of the first forays into prose fiction for Broken Sleep Books, a literary press which has already marked itself out as a go-to for up and coming poets. Hildyard’s collection consists of three short stories set in the unforgiving world of Yorkshire farming. Against the eerie backdrop of the Pennines, her characters struggle to inhabit a world in which nature is a malevolent and, despite their best efforts, untameable presence. Hildyard is an adept explorer of tension and conflict – between humans and nature, men and women and this insular society and the world surrounding it. All three stories chart these conflicts – from a young woman living through the foot and mouth epidemic in ‘Offcomers,’ to an ill-suited couple adjusting to marital life miles from any neighbours in ‘Outside are the Dogs,’ to finally, a young vegetarian university student who falls for a farmer raising animals for the slaughter in ‘Cull Yaw.’ Hildyard asks time and time again: what lengths will we go to control those around us, be they domesticated farm animals or fellow humans, and what consequences will we face as a result of our actions?

It is undoubtedly the relationship between man and nature which lies at the heart of Slaughter. The title of the collection promises something specific – a documentation of the harsh realities of life on Yorkshire farms – the gristle we so often try to ignore when consuming our daily supermarket fare. This is a promise which Hildyard delivers in spadeloads, and there’s a grim relish to be found in her descriptions of ‘pigs in the Essex abattoir, hanging dead and cold with blisters on their lipless mouths,’ the ‘bled skinned sheep’ that become mutton, and cows with bloat stabbed with needles the size of a man’s arm. Throughout Slaughter, Hildyard invites us to consider whether man can ever truly tame the natural world. In the collection’s opening story ‘Offcomers’, one character tells his wife that the farm they are living on is not ‘natural’ but rather has been ‘shaped’ by ‘centuries of hill farmers.’ Observing him, she thinks:

Yeah, but look at him: earth caked into the creases of his elbows, bones like flint. Eejit, I thought. You’re just one more part of this place, another cog in the ecosystem, as much as the birds are. Even if you like to pretend you’re the big man in charge.

As the foot and mouth epidemic creeps ever closer to their farm, an invisible and inescapable presence like Poe’s red death, his wife becomes increasingly convinced that it is their penance for attempting to impede on the Northern wilderness. ‘All the animals dying…They’re domestic animals, farm animals…This place has had enough of us humans.’ It is the ambiguity in man’s supposed dominion of the natural world which Hildyard so deftly explores throughout Slaughter, as her characters experience retribution, oftentimes Biblical in scale, for the wrongs they have committed against nature. 

Another compelling facet of Hildyard’s collection is her characterisation of the insular society her characters inhabit. At times this land of ‘speechless fields and derelict farms’ seems a different world entirely, where it is commonplace for a man to invite a woman to live with him or marry him within a few short weeks. She adopts convincingly the colloquialisms and perspectives of those who have been born and bred on the farms, who arise ‘pearly early’ and consider their sons ‘soft as claggum.’ Stoicism and understated language are the hallmarks of these characters, particularly her male ones. In ‘Dogs Belong Outside,’ she writes of her protagonist:

‘He can feel something buoyant building up inside his stomach the longer she’s around. This is happiness, he thinks.’ 

There is a real tenderness in this image, as Hildyard gives voice to the feelings of characters who lack the requisite words to express them. Though this is by and large an effective stylistic choice, there are points where the stoicism can become a little relentless, with a character supposedly infatuated with her husband-to-be simply describing him as ‘Tall, but stooped’ with ‘Black curling hair over most of his face and neck.’ Documenting a first date in ‘Cull Yaw,’ Hildyard writes that both characters are ‘…listening hard to the white spaces in between words: the gaps, the pauses spotting our conversation like lacework.’ This is sage advice for her readers too, who should pay close advice to the white spaces in between words, to what remains unsaid and merely implied, where her characters are perhaps not at their most expressive.

The stoicism of her rural characters is however mitigated by Hildyard’s consistent pairing of them with characters who are more recent recruits to Pennines society – often fresh university graduates, with experience of life beyond its craggy hills. Their baleful descriptions of ‘this snotrag of a country. Green and grey and always damp and trailed with mist, this mucus land’ provides an effective foil, and more clearly draw out the tensions which she is so interested in exploring – in this case between those who ‘belong’ to this world of farming and slaughter, and those who exist outside of it. This duality of perspectives is perhaps most effectively explored in ‘Cull Yaw,’ the strongest of Hildyard’s three stories. Star, a recent university graduate and die-hard vegetarian struggles with her attraction to a ‘pretty butcher boy.’ Through Star, Hildyard ably explores ethical concerns around slaughtering animals for food, while laying bare her privilege compared to her lover and his employees trying to make a living the only way they know how. Star’s gaze is particularly fascinating, as she experiences an animalistic desire for a man whose occupation is to slaughter the animals she refrains from eating. She savours  ‘glimpses of his hands, in latex gloves smeared with grease and blood…the hands I wanted squeezing my thighs’ and transforms him into a figure of simmering and lustful violence. Even chopping vegetables, his fingers become ‘a gobbling mouth chewing, spitting out, regurgitating bite-sized chunks of squash and shallot.’ This story is Hildyard at her strongest – she brings a nuanced perspective to both the realities of farming in the United Kingdom and female sexuality, as contradictions are not skimmed over, or resolved, but rather relished and dissected like a bloody carcass throughout this dark tale. 

With Slaughter Hildyard marks herself out as a promising young voice in the emergent strain of Northern Gothic, becoming ever more prevalent in contemporary British fiction and often compared to its American South counterpart. Staring out at a field of still sheep, Star considers how ‘passivity could be a choice….in this kind of place, silence could be a cold, hopeless anger too.’ These tales revolve around such passivity and hopelessness, which belie a fast-erupting sense of anger and violence, inherent to Hildyard’s skilfully rendered and shadowy landscape, as well as its inhabitants. 

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Rosanna Hildyard is an editor and writer from North Yorkshire. Her poetry and fiction has recently been published by Banshee, Modern Poetry in Translation, PERVERSE, Under The Radar and the Crested Tit Collective. She came second in the Brick Lane Short Story Prize 2019, and is an alumnus of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. Her short story pamphlet, Slaughter, was published by Broken Sleep Books in March 2021. 

You can find her on Twitter: @RosannaHildyard

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Daunish Negargar is an editor at New Critique.