Book Review: A Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

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My friend Karen said that this was one of the best books that she had ever read. She has repeatedly told me to read it (particularly recently given some potential lifestyle alterations). I am grateful for her insistence.

A Shepherd’s Life is the story of James Rebanks, a shepherd farming in the remote Cumbrian landscape. The blurb on Penguin’s website (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/270728/the-shepherd-s-life/) is thus: “Some people’s lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks’ isn’t. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.”

However, this isn’t really the story of the book in many ways.

Rebanks’ account is separated into four sections, the seasons that dominate the pattern of farming life. The first section, Summer, is the longest in the book (at a third), and for me the most fragmented. It reads like a collection of memories, reflections on growing up. A jumble of bloggy-style snippets. It took me some time to gel with Rebanks, initially someone not particularly likeable. A drop out of school, a bully, judgemental, overall a bit arrogant. Yet it was the thread of his passion, his faith, and his love for his farming life that sustained me. I was also puzzled as to how a man who left school, with barely any skills in writing, could articulate so well in print. The ‘hook’ for me came in the transition from Summer to Autumn, at his grandfather’s death.

In Autumn, Rebanks begins to grow up, and grow as a man. Rebanks writes with simplicity, honesty, and at times breathtaking clarity. A Shepherd’s Life isn’t written with sentimentality, yet it is a profound and moving read. The writing is engaging, it is like Rebanks is talking to you, and for that I forgive the spattering of clichés, and repetition.

In Winter the harshness of the shepherding life is revealed, with insights in to the routines of the days when snow lies thickly over the landscape. Decisions that are made in moments affect the lives of the precious flocks. You feel a part of team Rebanks, his writing is so vivid.

The book ends with Spring, and the optimism that accompanies it. Lambing, and the roles of his daughters on the farm. The book ends with Rebanks’ deep appreciation of where he is, and who he is. It is a perfect ending.

“This is my life. I want no other.”

The things that interested me in A Shepherd’s Life, apart from the human geography of farming in this tough, rugged landscape, was Rebanks himself. The economical truth of farming – many farmers need a second income, with Rebanks no different (as a consultant to UNESCO on how communities can benefit from tourism). A position earned because he wanted to live in Cumbria, on the farm his Grandfather loved. Rebanks became an educated man. He became what he despised as a boy, a student. These aspects of his development are not really explored – neither the anti-Wordsworth, tourist-loathing boy that now has a different view. Parts of his book are glossed over, but that says as much about my interest as a lack of depth in his story.

I love this book, but to use a cliché, it wasn’t love at first sight. This gradual unveiling of a truth and beauty, and a fundamental respect, and envy, of a man deeply rooted in his landscape and way of life. A Shepherd’s Life is a gem of a book, if a little unpolished in places. But isn’t that life?

This book is part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child or BFF.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks”

  1. Lovely review, Julia. I’ve heard and read about this book, but your honest gathering of its merits and faults is what has most made me want to take the next step and actually read it. Thank you. Keep well, and keep writing. Un abrazo desde Cataluña.

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