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What in literary tarnation is going on in the British Isles?

The high caliber of vernacular fiction astounds and delights, from Irish masters such as Kevin Barry and Paul Murray, to Scottish virtuosos like Ali Smith and Douglas Stuart. Now comes a prodigious debut novelist, Scott Preston. His "The Borrowed Hills," set in rural Cumbria, tucked along England's northwestern shoulder, is a marvel. Preston's sinewy, supple prose showcases a cast of desperate sheep farmers as they grapple with the elements and their own clandestine urges.

Spring, 2001. Preston's prodigal-son narrator, Steve Elliman, circles back to the farm his father leases, near the village of Bewrith, hardscrabble cousin to the Lake District's touristy "postcard country." Foot-and-mouth disease is blazing throughout herds; authorities demand wholesale slaughter and torching of corpses, dooming the local economy.

After his father's flock is destroyed, Steve ambles over to a larger, fenced-off spread, owned by William Herne and his wife, Helen, Steve's former school chum, who stirs up old attractions. Preston's opening sequence sings and singes as Steve pitches in with killing and disposing of Herne's herd. Good fences make good neighbors.

Steve abandons Cumbria again, driving trucks for three years, aimless, locked away in the solitude of his cab, picking the scabs of his psyche. But Herne has another plan in mind.

Following his father's death, Steve moves into Herne's guest house, kindling a flirtation (and more) with Helen while her husband maps out a heist: the abduction of market-prime rams and ewes from a prosperous farm in Herefordshire. Herne recruits Colin, a career criminal, and asks Steve to help transport 500 sheep back to Cumbria.

This scheme misfires, fueling "Borrowed Hills" to its Gothic climax: A series of mishaps forces Steve and Herne to trek their massive herd across Cumbria's craggy slopes and muddy bottoms, a modern-day Moses and Aaron tending their flock. Tragedy feels as inevitable as biblical prophecy.

Preston's gifts are abundant. He taps the cadences of northwest England, lopping off the subjects of his sentences, molding idiosyncratic nouns ("nowt" and "owt") like putty. His deep familiarity with livestock enriches his chapters: "We'd give them turns on good feeding grounds, finishing lambs on field beans and radish, finishing mutton on cocksfoot and mustard, and we'd drive them with dogs and sticks, a scabby parade of ewes over the grasslands and up the fells . . . we'd chase enough sheep through to put the whole village to sleep."

Borrowed Hills
Borrowed Hills

Moral questions quicken beneath the book's surface, informing the choices and deeds of Preston's characters; they seem quarried from the fells, souls stony and weathered but also vulnerable. Steve's introspection leads him to an epiphany: "No man can hate himself and keep living. He either learns to love the parts he hates or cuts them out and hope what's left is strong enough."

"The Borrowed Hills" strides confidently across its pages, like the seasoned work of a veteran. Preston is already firing on all cylinders, a writer to watch.

Hamilton Cain, who also reviews for the New York Times and Washington Post, lives in Brooklyn.

The Borrowed Hills

By: Scott Preston.

Publisher: Scribner, 304 pages, $28.