Dec 23, 2020

Tarka the Otter

by Henry Williamson

This is a book I put on my TBR over a decade ago- probably before I even started blogging. Now I also want to read the author's book Salar the Salmon, though it's also out of print so that will be happenchance. And whatever else of his I might come across.

It's the life of a river otter, though the animal does spend some time on the edge of the sea as well. It's mostly the otter's rovings, endlessly going up and down waterways, chasing fish with delight and wondrous dexterity, fiercely driving others off his food one moment, playing with them the next. It depicts the otters as very gregarious and friendly to their own kind, while driven off and hunted with dogs by men (the fishermen view them as competition and vermin). Very specific to a place- around the Taw river in North Devon. Detailed descriptions of the animal life, plants, weather, lay of the land etc- and specific local dialect when the otter encounters man. I liked this as it gives a real sense of place, but had to refer to the glossary a few times, which oddly isn't in alphabetical order but it's not long so easy enough to find a word. I didn't know before how avidly otters were once hunted with dogs and guns. From the wild animal's perspective it sounds terrifying, to be harassed by the hounds even to death- which is how this otter finally meets his end. Not without pulling a dog down with him. I think what stands out most vividly to me through this reading was how fluidly the otter moves through the water, using the course of rivers and streams to his advantage.

My edition has an introduction by Fortescue (who was a friend of the author), and an afterward by Williamson which is a very personal account of the circumstances surrounding his writing of the book- including how ill his wife and baby son were at the time. It's also got a curious feature I only noticed halfway through- each page has a word at the top not a chapter title but naming a place the otter was on that particular page. It's distinctive on every page, never saw that before. Also I really liked the illustrations by Barry Driscoll, and the heavy inky smell of the pages- as if my copy, in spite of being so old, had never been opened and read before. I fanned and smelt the pages way more often than I usually do in reading (which is probably at least once per book haha).

One to treasure. It's very like String Lug the Fox or Argen the Gull in tone.

 Rating: 4/5              265 pages, 1927

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read this in years but remember absolutely loving it and going on to read Salar the Salmon straight after, also very good. We lived in North Devon for eight years and got to know the setting for Tarka quite well. In fact a local walk along the Taw is known as the Tarka Trail.


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