Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson (1927)

Review Mary P:

The book sub title is ‘His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Two Rivers’. Williamson gives a very detailed description of an otter’s life, and that of other animals and birds in a very specific area of North Devon in the early twentieth century. Tarka is born and learns to swim and hunt before leaving his family, mating and having his own cubs. The shadow cast over the life of the otters is the regular otter hunts. The book ends with a fight to the death between Tarka and Deadlock, one of the pack of otter hounds.

Williamson wrote Tarka after the damaging experience of fighting in the First World War, when he retreated to live a hermit-like existence in Georgeham, North Devon. Williamson based his book on minute observation and revised it many times, driven by a need for accuracy in his descriptions of the natural world. His poetic language and lyrical descriptions raises the book above a simple description of the area of the Two Rivers. He is not sentimental about the otters or the other living things he describes, and death is always close by. Tarka’s sibling is shot by a farmer after being caught in a gin, and Tarka himself is caught in a gin and freed by his mate gnawing through his paw to free him. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

The final part of the book deals with the 10-hour hunt of Tarka by the local otter hunt, during which Williamson creates tension and a well-paced climax to the novel.

Tarka was much admired by Williamson’s contemporaries T. E.Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and John Galsworthy and it won the Hawthornden Prize in 1928, and the book has never been out of print. Later admirers were Ted Hughes, and Roger Deakin who described it as a ‘ great mystic poem’. Robert MacFarlane commented that ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive, writing as method acting’.

Williamson’s accuracy and honesty together with his poetic language puts Tarka firmly in a central place in the English tradition of writing about the natural world.

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