‘Tarka the Otter’ gets new life

"Tarka the Otter," by Henry Williamson. (Penguin Random House/TNS)

“Tarka the Otter” by Henry Williamson

Reading “Tarka the Otter” is a beautiful, heady experience — like spending two years wandering a riverbank in rural England. The subtitle sums up the book neatly — it is the story of the “joyful water-life and death” of an otter in rural Devon. But even though Tarka dies in the end, this classic novel (written in 1927 by Henry Williamson, newly republished by New York Review Books) is neither sad nor depressing.

Beginning with Tarka’s birth, it takes us almost day by day through his life — learning to swim and fish, wrestling and sliding down riverbanks with his littermates and mother, heading off to find a mate.

Beauty is everywhere — in the glinting surface of the river, the twittering birds, the silent herons. But danger is also everywhere: Everything eats everything else. And the local farmers hunt otters, which they consider to be vermin. One otter-hunting dog — Deadlock — is particularly ominous.

There’s no anthropomorphizing here — just an otter’s life, with all its perils and joys. “Time flowed with the sunlight of the still green place. The summer drake-flies, whose wings were as the most delicate transparent leaves, hatched from their cases on the water and danced over the shadowed surface.”

Charles Tunnicliffe’s woodcuts are as elegant and detailed as Williamson’s prose.

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