By C M Taylor

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

I can strongly recommend this most unusual novel. The main strand of the story concerns a troubled young man, Paul, who thinks he has found the perfect skive--a highly-paid four-year research job examining why people seemed to be so obsessed with the BSE scare. His eccentric Cambridge academic boss doesn't expect him to offer even a preliminary report for two years! So Paul, a country-hater through and through, now and then stirs himself to examine the significance and influence of the despised cow (and relatives) throughout history. We learn a lot, but info-dump is carefully and entertainingly avoided by a series of techniques, mainly the introduction of the formidable trio of Dickensian, almost Peake-ean, ancients who form the never-beaten Baron of Beef pub quiz team. Along the way, Paul, never the most stable of characters, begins to form some rather unusual ideas of his own about the human-bovine interrelationship, and when foot-and-mouth comes along, with the hysteria and mass slaughters, the novel darkens in tone, and the last section contains some of the most powerful writing I have read in a long time.

Because the novel, though it is concerned with cows, is also, and more importantly, concerned with human inter-relationships, with the uneasy intertwined lives of Paul and his brother Chris, and the two women who influence them so much. We are given fascinating glimpses into the minds, needs, and motives of two not-well-matched couples through a series of short significant scenes. This dispersal of point-of-view, and disjointed time frame, is occasionally a weakness in the novel, buffeting the reader around a bit too much, but this is more than made up for by the breadth of feelings we are able to explore, by the sheer pace, by the feeling that, behind the humour and eccentricity, something terrible is going to happen: 'cloven' does not refer only to the bovine hoof.

The novel is written with verve and sparkle (young mothers have to face the 'pocket-sized demandathon' of their babies), and is thoughtful, highly entertaining, humorous, horrific, and exciting--but never predictable. It would not be classed as either horror or fantasy, but it has elements of both, and should appeal to both 'mainstream' readers (the term becomes more meaningless day by day) and readers who go to 'genre' works because they want something more exciting, more stimulating, than what can often (not always, of course) be laborious copies of a supposed reality. Nothing impossible happens here--but after finishing, you feel you have been in a slightly parallel world, as if viewed through the night time reflection on car windows of flames coming from the byres of slaughtered cows.

Cloven by CM Taylor. Osiris Press pb, 180pp, £7.99. Available from Amazon

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