Two men are up a tree, gathering cones. One sits uneasily, rheumatic limbs always waiting to ambush him at these uncertain heights. His companion is as comfortable as a monkey though the epithet is an uncomfortable one because he is deformed, a hunch back, and in the language of the time, 'simple'. Neil and Calum are two brothers and, as the Second World War rages, they labor on a Scottish estate. The cones are to provide the seeds, that can no longer be imported, to replace the forest when, in the Spring, it is cut down to aid the war effort. Neil, the eldest, is fiercely protective of Calum in his disability.
All might be tranquility in a peaceful rural scene but there is, as always perhaps, a serpent in this semblance of paradise. It is the gamekeeper, Duror. He is an outwardly upstanding man in a gathering state of inward crisis. His young wife, shortly after their marriage, developed an (unnamed) disabling disease and became bed-ridden and has slowly grown obese over more than twenty years. Her still beautiful face afloat in fattening folds. She is looked after primarily by her widowed mother, a woman who constantly laments the injustice of her daughter's fate and who leaks bile towards Duror as an inconsiderate husband who finds it increasingly difficult to spend time with his wife and the self-pity she expresses, fueled by her mother's laments.
Duror is gamekeeper to Lady Runcie-Campbell. She lives at the manor, whose forest it is, with her two children, with her husband away at war. She is a conflicted woman, eager to maintain her status in society, class bound and hierarchical, but also as a Christian with a plucking conscience to be generous and supportive. The two continuously collide and the elucidation of this conflict is the central and most illuminating feature of the book. A parable in miniature of all the compromises people make to the living out of their confession. Christianity is irritatingly simple minded as it is compelling in its simplicity. To worry at this conscience is her son, Roderick, who in childhood innocence and sense of justice, reminds us why, in the words of St. Benedict, Christ often puts his wisdom into the mouths of the youngest.
Duror develops a hatred of the cone gatherers, most especially of Calum. His disability offends Duror and multiple explanations are offered from him as a constant reminder of his wife's distress to an unalloyed, irrational hatred of the other. He tries, unsuccessfully, to besmirch Calum's reputation suggesting, as a lie, that he has seen Calum exhibiting himself amongst the trees and as an 'imbecile' cannot be trusted with the Lady's children so close by. He is not believed as his deterioration is increasingly apparent and because Calum's naked trust in the world and care for it - he cannot bear seeing any animal harmed - and his innocence before folk is too disarming.
It would be churlish to reveal the story's denouement only to say it is both tragic and potentially redemptive. I have not read a novel by Robin Jenkins before. I will again - there are over thirty to choose from written over a long career. He is an adept realist. There is no obvious experimentation with form simply a well crafted, psychologically and spiritually acute story that draws one in and makes even the most unsavoury character - in this case Duror - an object of real sympathy. It is undoubtedly a parable of good and evil and beautifully allows psychological insight to sit in a wider mystery just in the way this parochial moment of hatred and tragedy is at sea in a world at war (whose mysteries are as great or greater). It is also a very realistic account of social hierarchy that may have morphed in particular form but remains with us yet. We imagine deference dead but it (and status anxiety) lives with us all too really still.