Category Archives: Wales

A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore

A Time for Silence - Thorne MooreThe last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”

This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon  the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents.  She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.

Sarah’s  pursuit  of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.

It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.

Footnotes

The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.

The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.

Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.

 

 

The Greatest Novels from Wales?

great-welsh-novelsToday, March 1, marks St David’s Day in Wales, the date when people of Welsh origin celebrate the life of our patron saint, St David, and Welsh culture in general. Today you can expect to see many people walking around with a daffodil or leek (both national emblems) pinned to their clothes. Schools often mark the event with an assembly during which the children sing traditional Welsh songs though the custom of wearing the traditional costume seems largely to be dying out.

I thought I would mark the occasion by taking a look at a question which is doing the rounds among the literary circle here.  In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?. Not an easy question to answer – probably as difficult as defining The Great American Novel. But they’ve persisted, asking contributors for their recommendations and publishing articles on what are considered to be the finest literary works in the history of wales. 

Below is the list of nominations – the links point to an essay on the Wales Arts Review. Of these titles the most famous name is that of Roald Dahl though probably Fantastic Mr Fox wouldn’t be considered his most outstanding work. I’ve read just two of these novels: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which I thought was stunning and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis which I read as part of my Booker Prize project and enjoyed in part.  I’ve heard of some of the other writers even if I’ve not experienced their works personally – people like Diana Wynne Jones, Emyr Humphries and Lewis Jones. But others are complete mysteries. I’ll explore some of these as part of my plan to read more literature from my home country – you can see some of what I’ve read to date over on my Authors from Wales page. 

Greatest Welsh Novel Contenders

  1. The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
  2. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
  3. The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
  4. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  5. Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
  6. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  7. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  9. The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
  10. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
  11. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
  12. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  13. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  14. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  15. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
  16. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
  17. Awakening by Stevie Davies
  18. Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard   (translates as One Moonlit Night)
  19. Shifts by Christopher Meredith
  20. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
  21. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
  22. A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
  23. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The winner, chosen by a panel of literary experts and authors and a public poll, was Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard – the only Welsh language novel to be nominated. Published in 1961, One Moonlit Night is the story of a young man’s education and growth to adult hood in the slate mining area of north west Wales – Caradog Prichard’s home territory. Announcing the result of the poll, one of the panel members compared the novel to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its use of magical realism.

Further resources

Announcement of The Greatest Welsh Novel

Description of One Moonlit Night by Publishers Weekly

Authors from Wales page on booker.com

Wales Arts Review

 

 

 

 

 

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones [review]

off_to_philadelphiaIt’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music.  Although he died more than 100 years ago,  versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.

Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.

Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.

This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.

The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning  is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.

joseph-parry-memorial-jpg

Joseph Parry’s memorial in Penarth, Wales

But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money.  But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….

 

But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?

Footnotes

The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.

The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as  a freelancer before progressing to novels.

Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.

If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.

10 Welsh authors for the festive season

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday meme asks us to think ahead to Dec 25 and what books we would recommend for friends, relatives etc. What a great opportunity to promote books by Welsh authors some of whom you will be familiar with but others will be unknown quantities.

  1. Let’s start with one of the biggest names and the one you will certainly have heard of – Dylan Thomas. You may have read his poetry or seen a version of Under Milk Wood but my recommendation given the season is to try get the rather delightful  A Child’s Christmas in Wales
  2. One name even bigger than Thomas is Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff – this year saw a big splash because its his centenary year.  I have a fondness for my first Dahl book – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  3. Ken Follett was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived there until he was 10 years old. Of his many novels Pillars of the Earth stands out for being the longest (its a trilogy covering five families from war through to the 1980s.). Rather more manageable is The Man from St Petersburg which is set in 1914 as the world prepares for war. This was the first Follett book I read and I can recall being entranced by it….
  4. Sarah Waters: Yes this leading author of Tipping the Velvet is from Wales. All her novels fall into the highly readable category. I made the mistake of buying The Paying Guests (my review is here) as a Christmas gift to my mum last year. I was reading it myself and thought it was pretty good – that was before I got to the rather detailed lesbian love scenes. I’m not sure if she ever read it but she has put it in a bag of books to go to the charity shop.
  5. Cynan Jones  won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction with The Dig, (a novel about a badger baiter, and a grieving farmer). His latest novel Cove which came out this month is rather different – the Guardian described it as “a minimal, occasionally mysterious, man-versus-the-elements fable.”
  6. Jan Morris, a  historian, author and travel writer (though she hates that last description). Read The Matter of Wales for an education into contemporary issues in the country written by someone who loves the country. Her style is lyrical and beautiful. There is a good review of this in the Guardian
  7. Gwyn Thomas. An erudite writer with an acerbic wit who became one of the leading voices at the BBC. Read The Alone to the Alone
  8. Alexander Cordell  was a prolific novelist in the 1950s and 60s – he write around 30 novels including Rape of the Fair CountryHosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth. A good choice for anyone who wants to understand some of the industrial heritage of the country.
  9. Turning to more contemporary authors we have Carys Davies  a writer whom I’m discovered through her success in the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. I seldom read short stories but her winning collection  The Redemption of Galen Pike was superb
  10. Coming right up to date we have Carol Lovekin whose novel Ghost Bird was published just this month. I’ve not yet read it but it comes recommended by Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) who called it “Charming, quirky, magical“.It was also the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April this year. I;’m hoping someone might buy this for me this December…..

Review backlog – part 2

Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..

mycousinrachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.

sarahs-keySarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay

This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.

It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.

This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the  Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.

resistanceResistance by Owen Sheers

Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.

In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.

On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.

Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel  I Saw A Man  which is set in  London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.

Black River by Louise Walsh

blackriverThis is a book set against the backdrop of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, UK in which 40 people, 116 of them young children lost their lives when a huge waste coal heap slid onto their school and their homes. I started reading this on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. As a former journalist and someone who lived close to Aberfan this was an event of personal interest.

The main character, Harry, is a local journalist who has to go to the scene and file reports. He is physically, mentally and emotionally affected by what he sees. He is aghast at the behaviour of journalists sent from the national newspapers in Fleet Street who seem oblivious to human suffering and just want to get their story.

Walsh partly bases the story on some documents which indicated that press intrusion was so bad that the government division in Wales was deeply concerned and wanted some action. Around it she tries to present a portrait of a journalist of the old fashioned kind and his reactions.

As deeply moving at this tragic event was in reality, Walsh singularly fails to make this a novel I could was able to finish. The narration is clunky, full of phrases that seem lifted from official reports rather than rendered in language that the characters would use in reality. Harry’s life as a reporter is unconvincing – I note from the acknowledgements that she had connections with several journalists from South Wales, one or two of whom would indeed have remembered Aberfan but I have grave doubts that they saw the book pre-publication. If they did they would have spotted a huge error in the opening page where, according to Walsh, London based journalists got to the site around the same time as Harry. They didn’t (the distance from London to this part of Wales would have taken them several hours while Harry was much closer so its unrealistic). Further fundamental errors are apparent – he misses his deadline to file one of the biggest stories at that time yet is never even reprimanded despite the fact that missing a deadline is a cardinal mistake for any journalist. And then, instead of focusing all his effort on this story over coming months, he goes chasing a much more inferior story about city officials banning a film of Ulysses.

i should have listed to my inner voice before buying this, the voice which says that authors who have never be a journalist rarely get it right in their portrayal of members of this profession. I could have struggled through if the writing had sparkled but it didn’t. In fact it was dreary, the kind of strained language that you often find coming out of introductory creative writing classes.

After three sessions reading this novel I decided it wasn’t worth any more investment of my time.

A disaster remembered

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies experienced in my home area of South Wales: the Aberfan disaster which saw the death of 144 people, 116 of them children. I was nine years old at the time – the same age of many of the children that were buried when thousands of tonnes of waste coal slid down the mountainside onto their school. It’s an event seared into my memory. The small community of Aberfan was just a few miles across the mountains from my school which was also in a mining town. What happened at Aberfan could easily have happened in my community.

Watching the news coverage of the commemorative events today was an emotional experience. Archive film shows the desperate efforts of rescuers to dig through the black slurry in the hope of finding someone alive. Among the many images from those days, this one has always stuck in my mind. The girl wrapped in the arms of a policeman was one of the lucky ones. She was found alive. Most of her classmates didn’t.

policeman-aberfan

An inquiry followed. To this day, although the blame for the disaster was laid firmly at the door of the people managing the waste site, (the National Coal Board) no employee or board member has ever been demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted.

A memorial was set up. By the time it closed,  nearly 90,000 contributions from all over the world had been received, totalling more than £1.6million. But instead of all that going to the bereaved and distraught families, it was used to make the remainder of the tip safe. Unsurprisingly, the community felt betrayed by the justice system and the political system. During my early days as a journalist I met some of those parents. I was struck then, and again today seeing some of them interviewed on TV, by how dignified they were in relieving those memories and of the betrayal that ensued.

blackriverIt seems a fitting day to begin reading a book that is based on the events of fifty years ago: Black River by Louise Walsh. It follows Harry, a journalist for the South Wales Echo journalist, who tries to protect the village of Aberfan from press intrusion in the run up to the first anniversary of the 1966 disaster.

If you want to find out more about this tragedy, the BBC Wales site is a good source. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources

 

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying_guestsThough I like to support authors from my home country of Wales, Sarah Waters is one writer that hasn’t grabbed me as yet. I was put off her first novel Tipping the Velvet when I learned  the central character is a music hall star (I’m a straight drama girl and shudder at the prospect of any stage performances involving music). I did give Fingersmith a go but found it rather dull. With that poor track record you might well wonder how I came to end up reading her most recent novel The Paying Guests? The answer is quite simple – my mother who pressed it upon me after her reading group raved about it. Our tastes rarely coincide so I opened it without a great deal of enthusiasm and probably wouldn’t have bothered except for the fact it’s set in 1920s Britain which is a period that fascinates me.

This is a time when, as a consequence of the Great War, the old constraints of gender and class began to break apart.  Waters depicts this through a mother and daughter who, robbed of their men folk, find it increasingly difficult to maintain the standards they had enjoyed as members of a moderately wealthy genteel strata of society. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are driven by economic necessity to find paying tenants (they are far too refined to call them lodgers) for rooms in their large sprawling villa in the Camberwell district of London. The idea is anathema to Mrs Wray’s middle-class sensibilities  but with her husband gone and her sons dead, there is little choice. The house is crumbling around them, Frances tries to wages a daily war against grime and dust but it’s more than she can manage alone and they simply cannot afford to pay for a servant.

Frances does have her moments of doubt when the Barbers first move in.

The thought that all these items were about to be brought not the home – and that this couple who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger and brasher who were going to bring them and set them out and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as thought she was opening the house to thieves and invaders.

At first Len and Lilian Barber do little to disturb the household other than creating awkward little moments when they have to go through the kitchen to use the outside loo or when Frances is discovered on her knees scrubbing at the hallway tiles, looking every inch a charwoman instead of a well-bred and educated woman.  Len Barber is an unpleasant figure with his leering behavour, his boorish attitude towards his wife and his regular boasts about his burdgeoning career in the insurance business. His wife ‘Lil’ is a vivacious creature who horrifies Mrs Wray by sleeping until late, using all the hot water for her bath and then floating about in a brightly coloured kimono. But Frances slowly finds herself drawn to Lilian and her liberated, brash ways. An affair ensues with disastrous consequences. As the two women try to resolve the situation they discover their standards of decency, loyalty and courage dissolve in the face of their fear of discovery.

Did I enjoy The Paying Guests?

Yes, in part. The first part that is.

This is the part which establishes the characters and leads to the torrid affair between Frances and Lilian. It’s full of convincing detail about the stultifying nature of Frances’ life from which Lilian provides a liberation. A frequenter of political meetings in the past, the intellectual side of her life has become closed in by the walls and furniture of the house she shares with a mother who cannot let go of the past.  The  ‘scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years’ become symbols of the confinement she feels within the house. Where once she had enjoyed a deep and loving relationship with another woman, now her only escape is the occasional bus trip to visit a friend in another part of the city.  Such is her life until the day Lilian walks through her door. With her brash outlook on life, her scissors, curling tongs and dressmaker’s eye, Lilian reawakens the old Frances, transforming her physically and emotionally.

Waters dramatises with considerable effect the idea that women in this period began to consider how to take control of their destiny and to reshape their lives in a new social order. If only this had continued to be the substance of the second half of the book. Unfortunately Waters changes tack and instead of a novel about relationships and social change we get more of a thriller with a death, a police investigation and a courtroom drama.  This drags on interminably with ever more twists and turns and plenty of tears and recriminations. Frances’ passion and pain is entirely believable but since we don’t have access to Lilian’s inner voice, the exploration of her character is rather lacking in substance.

Not a dud by any means but I could have done with more fizz and sparkle in the second half.

The View from Here: Good reads from Wales

viewfromhere

 

A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go. 

 Let’s meet Booker Talk

My real name is Karen.  I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?

I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour.  Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.

Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic  but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.

Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers  like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with  The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.

A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf SolentA Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.

Coming more up to date you’ll find  someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.

Q. Why don’t we see more Welsh language fiction available in English? 

Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.

 

 

 

Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

TheRedemption of Galen PikeI’ve never been much  of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.

But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.

I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.

Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.

The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his  wheeled suitcase.

Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to  connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same  painful secret.

Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria  from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity.  Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.

These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.

End Notes

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.

You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story.  Go and buy the book.

 

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