The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks: Review

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The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, represents a continuation of the revival of the pastoral genre, which was reinvigorated last year with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s excellent memoir H is for Hawk.

Primarily the comparison between The Shepherd’s Life and H is for Hawk is what drew me to Rebanks’ superb recollection of life rearing sheep in the Lake District. The books have been heavily compared and Macdonald is even quoted on the back cover of my copy.

Don’t get me wrong, the two books are fairly dissimilar. The subject matters differ greatly and there is a certain arrogance to Rebanks’s prose which contrasts with the self-deprication and uncertainty of Macdonald’s. However, there is a shared connection: the love of their landscape and the animals they rear on it.

Rebanks’ book focuses on his fascinating life as a shepherd working on the fells of the Lake District, interspersed with aspects of his  life outside of his work, his Oxford education and his family, which forms an intrinsic part of the narrative. Split between the four sessions, spring, summer, autumn and winter, the book charts both the farming calendar and his family’s progression, from the days of his beloved Grandfather, to his dad taking over the farm, through to teaching his young children the traditional ways that are still used to farm the fells.

As someone who grew up, for the most part (both in the sense that I didn’t live there all my life, and also am yet to fully grow up) in rural Dorset, I feel a certain empathy for the way Rebanks talks about the land he loves and the history of it. Rich history is a key part of rural communities and reading someone recount this with such vigour and overall understanding is a true pleasure. Rebanks’s passion, both for his animals and his land, is evident throughout the book, and enhances the brilliant narrative and strong, almost lyrical descriptions that at times make the book read like an extended poem.

Overall, this book is a real antidote to the excesses of modern life- escaping modern technology as much as they can, and avoiding mention of anything they cannot escape, the book highlights the traditions and evolutions of a landscape which is a central part of Britain’s rural heritage. A must read for anyone with a desk job looking for an intelligent and often witty insight into a world that seems so very far removed from their own.

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