Published: Lightning Books (April 2020)
‘Poetic and powerfully brutal...a one-off’ – The Times
The lyrical new novel from the award-winning author of Electricity and Forgetting Zoë
SHORTLISTED: Portico Prize
Midwinter. As former farmhand Jake, a widower in his seventies, wanders the beautiful, austere moors of North Yorkshire trying to evade capture, we learn of the events of his past: the wife he loved and lost, their child he knows cannot be his, and the deep-seated need for revenge that manifests itself in a moment of violence.
On the coast, Jake’s friend, Sheila, receives the devastating news. The aftermath of Jake’s actions, and what it brings to the surface, will change her life forever. But how will she react when he turns up at her door?
The Mating Habits of Stags is a journey through a life of guilt and things unsaid – and as beauty and tenderness blend with violence, Robinson transports us to a different world, subtly exploring love and loss in a language that both bruises and heals.
An early version of the story was released in 2016 as the short film Edith, starring Peter Mullan and Michelle Fairley, which was Bafta-longlisted for Best British Short Film.
Some nights she stands on her doorstep in Scarborough inhaling the night air, listening to the ceaseless rhythm of the waves crashing on the beach, a rhythm mirroring the wheel of thoughts in her head, because even in Jake’s absence, even with all this distance, even though she knows he has gone, she can still feel his presence at the very core of her world.
They didn’t know it, but this was Jake’s favourite time of year, the beginning of autumn—what Edith used to call the ‘back end’. Perhaps, working this plot of land, they will start to read the landscape as Jake once had. Notice how the blackbirds come to attack the fruit on the rowan tree and all around them is a final burst of colour, not just from the changing leaves but from the seed heads and clutches of berries, hedgerows bursting with hips and haws, bryonies and sloes, attracting flies and wasps and all manner of birds that will shit the seeds out in a splatter of rainbow-white.
Jake would miss seeing his friends in the garden, the robins and toads and jays and magpies that come to dig holes and plant acorns. He often wondered if the clutch of house martins would return to the same nest under the eaves the following year. Wondered if Sheila would be living in Dove Cottage and marvel at them as he had.
The blowy afternoons of autumn, intimations of chill sweeping down over Jackdaw Moor, wind-blown leaves like strips of leather, the birds falling silent as they begin to moult, and between mole heaves, lace-worked with hoar-frost, spider threads, spangled with dewdrops, will be carpeting the plots.
It is the time of year when Jake’s thoughts always returned to the back end of his childhood, walking to school across the meadows, moving his hands through the flower heads like some god mixing the firmament, cattle hock-deep in hawkbit and quaking grass, plough teams walking their daily acres, stooks of wheat propped in the fields, and the whump and crack of the baler was the summer-end beat of his heart. Because that’s what he would miss the most—the seasons spinning like a revolving door, repeating into a future without him. Because what he saw in autumn was a new beginning.
‘A taut, spare story of survival that turns on its heel to become something altogether braver, rarer and more precious’
‘A stunning novel. Ray Robinson is a wonderful writer. Raw, lyrical, and intensely moving’
‘This is such a brilliant novel. Dark, beautiful. If you like Cormac McCarthy or Jon McGregor or (what I think of as) Forest Fiction, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love this book’
‘Ray Robinson is a writer with keen observation. His prose is hard, abrupt and sinewy’
Allan Massie, The Scotsman
‘A gritty Northern noir, it’s a book about love, loss, grief, revenge and lust, and it’s just got this brooding and intense atmosphere to it, so you can’t stop reading it. Highly recommended’
‘It’s a one-off. What makes it so special is Robinson’s descriptions of nature. Poetic and beautifully brutal — no “hello, trees” mimsy. The dialogue is no-nonsense Yorkshire demotic. A heady mix’
‘A wonderfully empathetic account...full of candour, lyricism and compassion’
‘Rich, compelling stuff’
‘This extraordinary novel gets under the skin from the first paragraph. Robinson never goes for the trite or the neat. Hope and humanity emerge against the odds in a bittersweet and starkly beautiful tale that lingers long in the memory’
‘This is a whydunnit, a lyrical mix of nature notes, traditional song and tragic narrative, peopled with compelling characters’
‘The tale encapsulates a life of guilt and things that go unsaid...Robinson’s writing is truly exquisite with the perfect balance of lyrical and sparing narrative’
‘I was completely captivated by this novel about the primal instincts of love, home, survival and revenge. It seemed to remind of every good book that I have read in recent times. Expect this one to feature heavily come awards season. This is a book that reminded me why I love reading and it was a privilege to read’
‘A majestic and lyrical novel. If you enjoyed Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 or Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, you’ll get a lot from The Mating Habits of Stags, with its rhapsodic blend of the sublime and the savage and its beautiful exploration of the ripples of human existence’
‘It’s an absolutely extraordinary book – very beautiful yet rather challenging at the same time. It’s about finding the beauty in desperate and violent things, without being a desperate and violent book, and it's stunning. Even if you buy a copy and just gaze at the cover, it will be worth the money’
‘The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape... The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend’
‘I absolutely loved it. It’s not a long novel, but the language and narrative are powerful and immersive. It’s one of those books that you feel glad you read and want to tell everyone to read too’
‘A story of love, loss and unfinished business – 222 pages of brilliance’
‘The charm of Emily Brontë and the slap-in-the-face of Cormac McCarthy. My favourite book of the decade so far’
‘This is a stunning novel, one that I’m struggling to write about because I loved it so much. It mixes utter desolation, hardship and violence with such beautiful, poetic writing. I highly recommend it’
‘A gorgeous read about love and grief…what a beautifully described tale this is’
‘Robinson’s writing is beautiful. The Mating Habits of Stags works on all levels. It is a pleasure to read’
‘It is next to impossible to capture in a couple of sentences the majesty of this novel. The Mating Habits of Stags is an incredible book which has left me feeling bereft. It has gone straight into my top five all-time favourite books’
‘Wonderfully intimate... so evocative and atmospheric. It’s one of those books that gets under your skin. I can’t recommend it enough’
‘Robinson is always good with tone, and it’s the same here... There’s a strong sense that the landscape of the Moors is in Jake’s bones... A delicate piece of work’
‘A beautiful, bleak and haunting tale... Robinson’s writing is so evocative and powerful, I felt as though I was on the run with Jake. I wholeheartedly recommend this gem of a book’
An early version of The Mating Habits of Stags was released in 2016 as the short film Edith, starring the Emmy-nominated Peter Mullan and Game of Thrones actress Michelle Fairley, and directed by Christian Cooke. It was Bafta-longlisted for Best British Short Film and continues to win awards and accolades around the world.