The forces of family loyalty and duty do battle with one woman’s desire for an independent life in Janet Fraser’s debut novel Advent.
Set in rural Wales in 1904, the novel focuses on a young woman summoned home from America by the failing health of her father. Her twin brothers and mother hope that 21-year-old Ellen can get William Thomas to see sense before he sells too much land and destroys the farm.
The homecoming awakens painful memories for Ellen. She’d left the Gower Peninsula in emotional turmoil two years earlier when her dreams of marriage were crushed. She’d put all that behind her, making a new life in New Jersey where her eyes had been opened to the opportunities and possibilities of America. Now she’s back home she finds herself dragged back into a life which places limitations on women.
If she stays, Ellen knows her life will become just like her mother’s and her grandmother’s: a constant round of cooking, cleaning and washing, of caring for the men in the household. Ellen wants far more from life. But how can she leave Wales again knowing how much her mother and brothers need her?
Ellen’s dilemma is intensified when her father dies, leaving the future of the farm uncertain and the family in a precarious financial position.
Advent gives us an engrossing, intimate portrait of a woman who is torn between two contrasting ways of life, symbolised by the Wales of her childhood and the America of her adulthood.
Wales is the past; the land of folklore, age-old rituals and ceremonies. America is the future; the land of change, of construction and engineering and people with new ideas. Ellen is so taken with the new life that she can’t understand why no-one on the Gower, is interested in hearing her tales.
Then she realised it wasn’t boredom, but fear. They didn’t want to hear about the new, here where the old stayed unchanged, perhaps forever. They didn’t want to know that there was a different way forward, that people were living their lives in different ways , women were daring to think different thoughts.
Ellen is a fascinating character. She’s fearless at times, rejecting the unwritten but long held views among the Gower communities about the place of women. Why shouldn’t she be at her father’s funeral? Why shouldn’t she, and not her brothers, inherit the farm – she is after all the eldest child? And why shouldn’t she question the teachings of the church?
Yet there is an underlying vulnerability to this girl. She feels bitter and betrayed by the way her hopes of marriage were destroyed and the lover who should have fought for her caved in, putting duty before love. Seeing him again now she’s back in Wales, she knows that she has never stopped loving him but there can be no future for them unless they both make a break with the past.
This tale of a conflicted individual is played out against the backdrop of a part of Wales that is vividly brought to life through the weather, the farming rituals and the centuries-old traditions of a rural community. Jane Fraser takes us from Christmas Day preparations in farmhouse kitchens to weddings and funeral ceremonies in church pews and to the whipping stones on the village green once used to punish wrongdoers.
it’s a fascinating glimpse of a way of life in this part of Wales yet though it celebrates the past, Advent also shows that world undergoing change. The opening up of coal mines along the coast is drawing men away from the land, giving them new, but dangerous, opportunities to earn a living. New enigmatic preachers are drawing people away from churches to the chapels and (much to the dismay of the publicans() to oaths of abstinence from alcohol.
One of the things I love about books published by Honno, is the sense of place their authors evoke. While I enjoyed the saga of the Thomas family and Ellen’s dilemma, it was the the setting and historical context of Advent that completely absorbed my attention. Jane Fraser cleverly blends the personal and the public, using the idea of an individual turning her eyes to the future as a mirror for the point when the land of her birth begins also to look to the future.
Advent by Jane Fraser: Footnotes
Jane Fraser lives, work and writes in the Gower peninsula (an area of outstanding natural beauty in south west Wales.) Her debut collection of short fiction The South Westerlies was published by Salt, in
June, 2019. She has been widely published in anthologies and reviews including New Welsh Review, The Lonely Crowd, Fish Publishing, TSS and The London Magazine.
In 2017 she was a finalist in the Manchester Fiction Prize and in 2018 was a prize winner in the Fish Memoir Prize. She was selected as one of Hay Writers at Work, a prestigious creative development award for emerging writers, in both 2018 and 2019.
Advent, her first novel. was published on January 21, 2021 by Honno, an independent co-operative press in Wales run by women and committed to publishing the best in Welsh women’s writing.
My copy was provided by Honno in conjunction with RandomThingsTours in return for an honest review.