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Category Archives: Welsh authors
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
To kick off this new series, I’m joined by Alys Einion, the author of two books: Inshallah and the follow up, Ash. I had the pleasure of reading Ash earlier this year (my review is here) and then met up with Alys at an open reading event in Cardiff.
“Hi again Karen, thanks for talking to me. Books are one of my most favourite subjects to talk about.”
Q: Let’s begin by asking you to imagine you’ve just met some readers in a lift. You have only a few floors to persuade them to read your latest book, Ash. What’s your pitch?
“I’d say Ash is about the relentless toil of motherhood and the need for intimacy meet and clash with the first stirrings of womanhood and identity, as two tales of life and what it does to us coalesce in a journey of becoming.”
Q: What inspired you to write Inshallah and Ash?
“Oh, now you’re challenging me!
“Inshallah was born out of a conversation with an acquaintance, a friend really, though we’re not in touch any more. It was a conversation about someone who did something similar to what Amanda does – and it started a huge train of thought, mainly about faith, belief, and fatalism or submission.
“My first idea was to call it The Submission because a key feature is that Amanda (the protagonist) finds faith and decides that everything is happening to her because it is meant to happen, a
nd that she should submit to a higher power. Which then means she is meant to do what is in front of her – marry Muhammed because she is pregnant. In Arabic, the word or phrase Inshallah, means something like Submission to God or God Willing, so I was inspired by this idea.
“I was fascinated by the idea of faith, absolute faith, and also really keen to explore the experiences of a woman marrying, moving to an alien culture, and learning to fit in, including having to learn a new language.
“It required a lot of research. But some of it was based on my own experiences, as I did something similar when I was young – though I only went from South Wales to North Wales! I guess I understood the idea of feeling like a path was laid out for me, and I believed (and still do) in a higher power that was putting opportunities in front of me.
“Amanda’s choices are extreme, but the beauty of her story lies in her ability to survive, to endure. I also really wanted to write something that explores sexual violence. That was a tough choice, and not popular, and not easy to do. But violence and control in relationships is remarkably common. And I wanted to draw a distinction between the community of women, and the faith, that Amanda grew into, and the one single horrible man who threatened to destroy her life. I know many women who have escaped from terrible, abusive relationships and I wanted their stories to be partly present, I suppose. We have our own hero’s journey, one that is uniquely female.
“Ash followed on from that. I hadn’t intended to write a sequel, but reader responses and a discussion with my editor started a seed of thought, particularly about telling Ash’s story (Amanda’s daughter).
“A lot was inspired by my experiences as a mother, and also watching others’ experiences particularly as single parents, addressing adversity and keeping going. I was particularly struck by the people I saw around me – mothers, children, the occasional father – and all the ways in which they interacted. I am not really inspired by typical story arcs, and running two narratives on two different timelines was a bit of a challenge. But I wanted to tell Amanda’s ongoing story, and to not romanticise it, and to get up close and personal with the experience of girls becoming women. Ash is more controversial than Inshallah, but it came from the same source – uncompromising depiction of what womanhood can be like in our modern world.
“When I am writing, there’s something like a flash of sudden light, a realisation as the story takes root – a bit like conception, I suppose. There may be ideas, germs of ideas, vague thoughts and feelings, but something sparks the story to life and suddenly it takes on a life of its own. I was reading a news article about radicalisation as preparation for a teaching session – and boom! There it was.”
Q. What books would you say have shaped you most as a reader and as an author?
“Wow, that’s a big question, but luckily it’s something that I think about quite a lot.
“I read The Hobbit when I was seven, and it caught my imagination in a significant way. My mother was a big Tolkien fan. So when I was eleven years old, I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was a challenge but I fell in love.
“I read that book every year, at least once. I always find something new and beautiful in it. And I cry, every time I read it, when Sam picks up Frodo and carries him up Mount Doom. It is the epitome of love.
“That book made me think about what constitutes a good story. I realised that I wanted to be moved by what I was reading, to connect in some way beyond simply enjoying a story. The use of language, in some places, is so profound, but you also learn that it is a bit of an anti-story. Lots of people criticise it, especially fellow feminists, but I find it moving and very inspiring, and it has some of my favourite quotes in it, almost like a philosophy for life.”
I was also powerfully affected by a book I got from the library when I was around 12 or 13. My mother was the branch librarian in our village, so I spent quite a lot of time in the library as a child and teenager, and read a wide variety of things.
“Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M Arthur – probably what would now be classed as YA fiction – was a favourite; so magical and so evocative. It was one of the first books other than Lord of the Rings that made me cry. In it, the main character has been ill, and is sent to Cornwall to convalesce, and during this time experiences vivid dreams of a ghostly Italian princess and a tragic love story.
“It’s a short book, but beautifully written, and I read it again and again. It was eventually returned to the library, but the story stayed with me, and about 20 years ago I logged on to a book finding site and put in a request to search for it. It took nine years, but a copy of the book surfaced and I bought it – and it’s a library edition, just like the one I first read. It’s hard to describe this, but so many books stay with me, like really old friends – and that is one of them.
“A few other books I’ll mention:
- Anne McCaffrey’s books: I have everything she ever wrote, and even wrote to her in my 20s for advice as a writer.
- Roxane Gay, whose book Difficult Women is mind-blowing
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most significant influences on my writing. I read it in my late teens, and again, I have re-read it several times.
- Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. It’s about writing. It’s a novel, but really cleverly explores writing and structure etc.
- Stephen King’s On Writing is brilliant.
Q. Where do you like to write? Do you have a favourite place or chair?
“I have a lovely antique teachers’ desk in my living room, which is where I like to write when I am at home. It has a big, broad surface which suits my habit of covering it with papers and books. I like to write longhand, on yellow, lined paper, with a fountain pen. Then I type up and edit onto a laptop. The desk sits in the bay window. I love to write in windows, to be able to look out as I let my thoughts wander.
Most of Inshallah and Ash were written in cafes, including one just around the corner from me. It’s full of different characters and the staff are great. I find it easier to write in places like that, though I often get the urge in all kinds of places. Pubs, trains, anywhere really. I really like to people watch as well. It’s really fascinating and interesting. But there has to be plenty of tea available.
“Sometimes, I take my camper van down to the beach nearby, usually Oxwich, and park up and then spend the day writing. It’s almost perfect, and that works when I want to feel close to the wild and to get away from housework and emails and my day job. That can help me be more disciplined, as I don’t get distracted by mundane things.
Q. Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels they need to finish everything?
“Hmm well that has changed over time.
“I used to be really stubborn and finish everything – even War and Peace! If I got past the first 10 pages, I was committed. What might turn me off at the beginning would be bad writing, or simply a style that I could not get on with. Some books I would read even if I didn’t like the style, because I wanted to have read them (eg some Dickens can be quite dense but I stuck with it, and don’t get me started on Chaucer).
“Some books have surprised me over the years. I found Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda much harder to read than Jane Austen, but I persevered because of the subject matter. But I read a lot of lighter fiction in between the more literary fiction, as it provides lovely light relief and is a great foil for my academic work. I am not a literary snob by any means. I will persevere with some books in order to broaden my horizons. If I find an author I like, I will basically buy everything they have ever written.
“Nowadays, I am incredibly busy all the time, and although I read constantly, it has to be fitted in around everything else. So I have to really be into the book to commit to it. Time is precious – I will put a book down if I can’t get on with it, but more often than not I will come back to it weeks, months or even years later and try it again. Sometimes I will finish it on the second go, sometimes not.
“I might buy books based on recommendations from other people, often online purchases which are handy when I am really busy. But nothing beats going to the library, or to a bookshop, and touching and opening books and trying out a few pages to see if this is something I should read. And I read fellow Honno author books, partly because they are really good books by women, partly out of solidarity – which has proved a real blessing as I have discovered new nuggets of story that shine well beyond the point when I shut the book at the end. I do try to make a point of reading books published by independent presses because I think good writing is good writing.
“I think, though, overall, when you know just what goes into a book – how much work it takes to produce that story, it makes you more inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and keep going. Usually it’s worth it. Some books are an acquired taste, like Marmite or olives. Still, if it’s sprouts, it’s sprouts, and then it’s a no from me.”
Q. Before you go, since this is meant to be a series about Welsh writers, I have to ask whether you think there is a characteristic spirit, theme or preoccupation in fiction from Wales; something that makes it uniquely Welsh?
“Ah, now that’s another good question.
“I think that people from Wales, perhaps even without knowing it, and particularly writers, are affected by our cultural heritage. I grew up with not a very good opinion of Welsh cultural heritage, mainly because my education and teachers was focused on England and English texts and English arts and culture. It was only as I grew older that I realised that the richness of Wales lay in its history and its literature and art and its working class bones, as it were. I learned to be fiercely proud of being Welsh.
“I think people who have lived in Wales develop a strong sense of hiraedd, and it infects our writing. I know that when I write, this country is the context of many of my thoughts. I think there is a character in this land, which we all share, of endurance and strength and beauty found in unexpected places.
“But I also think that this land holds anger and bitterness, the grief and loss of heritage, language, culture and prosperity, and the echoes of our subordination and occupation.
“Mostly I think that Welsh culture, and in particular, Welsh writing, incorporates a realistic appreciation of life, struggle, triumph, and community. And I think it is the romantic wild soul of the Welsh, and of this land, that mixes with that anger, and affects us all. “
Alys Einion has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing. She is published by Honno Press. She can be contacted via Twitter @AlysEinion.
Emma Kavanagh comes from South Wales – the one in the UK, not the upstart “New” South Wales which is on the other side of the world. She is a former police and military psychologist who provides training to police and branches of the armed forces across the UK and Europe. Given her background it’s not surprising that To Catch A Killer is a psychological crime thriller. It features a woman police sergeant newly back in post after a fire at her home from which she was lucky to emerge alive, although with facial disfiguration. Now she is on the trail of the killer of an attractive, well-dressed woman found with her throat slashed in a London park.
This is a very fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns and a central figure who is struggling to deal with the trauma of the fire. I hadn’t come across Emma Kavanagh’s work previously but on the evidence of just this novel, she is a name to watch for the future.
I’m also dipping into The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosely (fascinating once you get over the yucky bits) and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by J Mark G Williams. I’ve tried about half a dozen books on mindfulness in recent months and this one is the best so far. Very clear, very practical, with a commendable absence of hippy drippy stuff.
What did you recently finish reading? Trick by Domenico Starnone
This is a short but very compelling story of an elderly illustrator asked to look after his rather precocious four-year-old grandson for a few days.
Don’t imagine however this is a warm, family bonding kind of story. The relationship between these two people is one based on a battle for control. Grand-dad needs physical and mental space in which to work and complete his latest commission with a publisher is breathing down his neck. The boy just wants to play. In their tussle, the old man begins to question his abilities as an artist.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Always a tough question. This month it’s even more challenging because I’m preparing for an extended holiday which involves multiple long flights. I’m not keen to use up my luggage allowance with hefty books so am planning to take a maximum of 4 paperbacks that I’ll be happy to discard mid trip. I should add that I’ve also been making sure I have plenty of e-books available….
I need variety. Maybe one crime novel, maybe one ‘classic’ although some of those on my owned-but-unread shelves are rather bulky. I have six days to make up my mind. Based on previous experience the selections are going to change multiple times before the case is zipped for the last time.
How do you decide what books to take with you on a trip? Any recommendations for a strategy to help me make decisions.
Anorexia, domestic abuse, female subjugation, religious extremism: Ash by Alys Einion contains an abundance of issues but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially a story about relationships.
Ash is the follow up to her debut novel Inshallah which traced the fateful decision of a woman to swap her native Wales for her husband’s home in Saudi Arabia. When her life is threatened and no-one believes her claims about her husband Muhammed’s abusive behaviour, Amanda flees the country with her children.
Ash finds her back in the UK, struggling to bring up the children, moving from one squalid home to another, always fearful that Muhammed will find them. The boys eventually find their own way to survive in a country and a way of life that feels alien. But Ash (Aisha) the only daughter, finds it impossible to adjust. Impossible to fit in. Impossible to relate to her mother.
Ash is a moving portrait of a troubled teenage girl and her alienation from her mother. It’s told in the voices of these two women whose experiences have given them a bleak outlook on life.
“Everything is fake, in the end,” says Ash.
All the people who say they love you, they don’t mean it. Those women, the ones my mother shacked up with, they said they loved her, they said they’d be there, and they’re gone. It’s a lie, all of it.
Amanda deals with these frequent disappointments in her life, the times when people let her down by losing herself in her painting. Ash takes a different approach, starving herself and exercising fanatically to lose weight and avoid cruel jibes at school.
The gulf between these two women is the strongest aspect of the novel. Initially I found it hard to believe that Amanda would be so engrossed in her painting she wouldn’t notice her daughter’s unhappiness. Forget to shop for groceries yes. Forget to eat, certainly. But fail to see her daughter isn’t eating and has no friends? Not really. As we learned more of Amanda’s background however, her often eccentric behaviour became easier to accept: art is her refuge, a way of forgetting the pain of the past.
Many of the chapters deal with these past events. They help provide the necessary context for the main characters’ current state of mind and explain the tension between mother and daughter. This means there is a certain degree of ‘telling’ in this novel but that wasn’t any barrier to my enjoyment of the book. I found the rewinds to Amanda’s life in Saudi Arabia and her first months back in the UK also helped fill in the background that I was lacking because I hadn’t read Inshallah. Every chapter is labelled with a colour which often reflects a key mood though this wasn’t always successful and many times I failed to see the significance of the selected colour.
Where the book worked better was in showing the pain and confusion experienced by the teenage Ash. Her response to the psychological warfare waged against her by her class mates — the willowy, slim hipped girls who call her fat — is to reduce her food intake to almost nothing. Control over her body gives her strength.
They all hate me, they despise me, but they can’t beat me because I am better than them, I can do this now and no-one can stop me. No one is stronger than I am …
If I eat this, they win, and that mens they’re right about it all, that I’m just a fat nothing.
Though Ash is a highly intelligent girl, her predicament makes her vulnerable to exploitation. I won’t go into details of that aspect of the plot because it would spoil the book for other readers, but it gives the novel a highly topical dimension and provides a cliff hanger ending. I suspect that means Alys Einion has a follow up novel in the offing.
There were times I thought the book was a little repetitive but the thrust of the narrative and the depth of the characterisation kept my interest throughout.
About this book: Ash was published in 2018 by Honno Press, independent women’s press in the UK.
About the author: Alys Einion has had a varied career. She has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing
Why I read this book: I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last couple of years to read more books from authors and publishers based in Wales. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw it on the Honno website. Aly
Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat is a psychologically tense novel that calls to mind that darkly disturbing fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
In Hamer’s novel a young girl disobeys her mother and wanders off during a day out at a story-telling festival. As the fog rises over the fields and the festival goers begin to hurry home, they pay scant attention to the lone child dressed in a bright red coat. No-one sees Carmel leave the site and get into a car with a man who claims to be the grandfather she has never met.
While keeping her captive in his remote and tumble-down hide-out, he plans his next move. He believes she is special, a girl with a gift for healing. A girl whose powers can make him rich.
Told in the alternating perspectives of the missing daughter and her grieving mother Beth, The Girl in the Red Coat is a novel keeps you hooked.
From Beth we learn that she’d long had a premonition that one day she would lose Carmel. Now it’s just the two of them (her husband Paul left her for a younger woman) she becomes ever more obsessed about keeping a close eye on her daughter. Her need to be protective is resented by her daughter. Carmel loves her mum but just wishes she would give her more freedom.
Beth is right to be afraid. Her daughter is an unusual child, highly imaginative, and intelligent beyond her years but also dreamer, prone to lose all sense of time and of her self while playing in the woods.
Was it just me who saw those absences? When she stood rooted to the spot and her eyes became strange and stony — then as soon as they came, they went. Fugues I began to name them.
Carmel’s sections of the narrative work carry the weight of the narrative since it’s through her we slowly come to understand her abductor’s plans and the girl’s struggle to retain her identity. There’s a race-against-time element to this novel
Child narrators are always tricky to pull off. They can either sound too childish or too mature for their supposed age. Hamer compounds the difficulties by imbuing her child with elevated powers of observation and communication. A few times the narrative comes across as a little unrealistic but the power of the story is so great that such thoughts last only a second.
Both daughter and mother make frequent reference to the fairytale nature of what’s happened to them. Beth wishes she’d kept her daughter “shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow.” Spotting her shadow on the wall beside her captor’s, Carmel muses: “We both look like the paper puppets … and I wonder what story we’d be telling if we were.” She steels herself by thinking: “Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories … If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.”
Obviously this book has a strong race-against-time element to it. Will Carmel be found? Will mother and daughter ever be reunited in true fairy-tale tradition? Hamer handles the tension and suspense well and if that were all this book had, it would a perfectly enjoyable yarn.
But it’s her depiction of the complicated relationship between mother and daughter that made this novel considerably more appealing for me. Though their relationship had often in the past been tense, in their forced separation they discover the depth of their need for each other. When they see each other again, theirs will be a very different relationship resolves Carmel.
All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.
As time passes and her confidence in her ability to survive diminishes, she still clings to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her mum.
Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.
Is there a fairy-tale happy ending for Carmel and Beth? You;ll just have to read the book yourself because on that question, my lips are sealed.
About the book: The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer. It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.
About the author: Kate Hamer comes from Pembrokeshire in Wales. She received a New Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales to help her finish her novel, She currently lives with her husband in Cardiff. Her second novel The Doll Funeral was published in 2017.
Why I read this book: It was selected by one of the book clubs to which I belong but they postponed the date for the discussion and I couldn’t get to that rescheduled meeting. So the book went back on the shelf and I forgot about it until the end of last month when I was hunting around for some books to take with me on holiday.
If ever I needed reminding that I have led a (mercifully) sheltered life, I just have to pick up a crime novel. Some of the scenarios dreamed up by the authors working in this genre are not only out of my realm of experience, they don’t even figure in my knowledge bank.
Until I read Doll Face, the second title in Dylan H Jones’ Tudor Manx series, I was blissfully unaware for example that there is a certain section of the population that likes to step into rubberised full body suits whenever they feel like adopting a new persona.
Living Dolls … A subculture of men who like to dress like dolls. They wear body suits, masks, anything that makes them more feminine.
I have to believe that Jones has done his homework and not only do such people walk this planet there are businesses that supply their needs. What a way to make a living!
The habit provides the title of Doll Face, and is responsible for some thoroughly creepy moments.
I read the first novel in this series — Anglesey Blue — last year and enjoyed it as you can see from my review . I wasn’t the only one. It was long listed for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ 2017 and occupied the #1 Best Seller spot in Welsh Crime for a time. Not bad for a debut novel.
I wondered at the time how this series would progress. It’s hard enough to write one successful novel but coming up with an equally good second in a series is tough. In an interview I did with Dylan Jones he said his plan was to set each book in a different season with his central character, Detective Inspector Tudor Manx, wrestling with his decision to return to his native island of Anglesey in Wales.
Though Doll Face takes place in Spring, a season associated with hope and growth, it feels a darker novel to me than the winterly Anglesey Blue. It’s set three months after the first novel with Manx’s detective skills called upon when a body of a young woman is found horribly mutilated. Then gruesome video footage comes to light showing details of how she was murdered.
Suspicion falls on her nasty ex husband and on her employer, the millionaire tech-entrepreneur Kimble McLain. McLain is such a big cheese and philanthropist that the high-ups in the police force want Manx to go cautiously. But of course this is a guy who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. Besides, when another similarly mutilated body is discovered, it quickly becomes clear that there could be a serial killer on the island. The investigation takes Manx into the world of religious fanaticism and child abuse.
Some of the threads from the earlier novel make a return in Doll Face. There’s the disappearance of his sister many years earlier which continues to haunt Manx. There was a cliff-hanger at the end of Anglesey Blue which I thought would have been picked up in this second novel but we didn’t get much further forward on that plot line. But there was a significant development about the hitherto hinted-at reasons why Manx left his previous job with the London Metropolitan serious crime division under a dark cloud of suspicion.
The inspector’s strained relationship with the forensic scientist Ashton Bevan is also shaping up nicely while we got to know more about the two key members of the team: policewoman Delyth Morris and Falklands’ War veteran Detective Sergeant Maldwyn Nader, who is suffering from PTSD. I’m warming to them both as well as to the cigar smoking, sports car driving inspector. Maybe by book four one of the women on the island will have persuaded Manx that it’s time his fashion sense came into the twenty-first century.
An entertaining read with plenty of twists and dangling threads to keep you reading. It can be read as a stand-alone novel though it you want to get under the skin of Anglesey, it would be worth reading Anglesey Blue also.
About the Book: Doll Face by Dylan H Jones is published in March 2018 by Bloodhound Books.
About the Author: Dylan H Jones is a native of Anglesey so he knows a thing or two about the island, its landscape, language and people. He has worked in television and the creative industry, as a producer at the Welsh TV Channel, S4C before becoming creative director at Channel 4, London. In 1999, Dylan moved to California where he worked a copywriter in LA, writing movie trailers and TV ads.
Why I read this book: It’s a great opportunity to showcase the writing from my native country of Wales. Thanks to Dylan Jones and to Bloodhound Books for providing me with an advance copy of Doll Face in return for a fair review.
Many authors can go through their entire career without a single award or literary prize to their name which makes the recent success of Welsh author Alys Conran even more extraordinary. At the 2017 Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this month she swept the board with three prizes for her debut novel Pigeon. It’s a remarkable achievement considering she was in competition with Cynan Jones, an author of international standing, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel Cove was also shortlisted.
Pigeon was selected unanimously for the overall Book of the Year title because it lingered in their minds long after the judges had finished reading it said judging panel chairman Tyler Keevil. As a coming of age story littered with domestic violence, broken homes and mental illness it certainly has an emotional pull. Conran takes us on a journey through the memories of two children, Iola Williams and her closest (indeed her only) friend Pigeon, who live in a Welsh town surrounded by slate quarries. In the opening scene the pair chase an ice cream van and then debate at length their choice of flavour. It lulls us into thinking this is a tale filled with idyllic days of innocent fun but it doesn’t take long to find this is a novel that debunks all those myths about childhood.
Both children live in broken homes. Iola’s dad has disappeared, her mother and her beloved Nain (grandmother) are dead, leaving the girl in the care of her hippy elder sister. Pigeon, a sallow-faced skinny boy with shoulders as ‘delicate as egg shells’ lives in the garden shed of the crooked house he shared with his seamstress mother until he was ousted from his bedroom when stepfather Adrian and his daughter moved in. Pigeon is regularly beaten by this man (Pigeon refers to him only as as Him or H) and has to watch his mother lose all her spirit and independence through Adrian’s bullying.
To channel his energy and anger he plays truant from school, disrupts Sunday School meetings and makes up adventures and stories about bad people. Iola doesn’t fully believe in Pigeon’s fantasy world but she still goes along with his five-stage plan to prove Gwyn, the ice cream seller, is up to no good and may even be a murderer. The plan goes disastrously wrong; the first of two calamities that results in a forced separation of the friends and threatens to sever their relationship. As they emerge from childhood into early adulthood they have a chance to start afresh but only if one of them can lay to rest their feelings of guilt from the past.
The path to redemption for Pigeon comes through his encounters with Elfyn, a father figure under whose guiding hand Pigeon learns to build dry stone walls and rediscover a willingness to speak his native language. Throughout his life Pigeon has been fascinated by words, collecting them and savouring their novelty ‘with their strange textures: clay, metal, soap textures, and the strange tastes of the words as he says them into the cold air.’ Sent to a young offenders institution in England he has no choice but to learn English though this means he has to suppress part of his self.
But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deep.
Words and language are significant in more than one sense with Pigeon. This is the first novel to be simultaneously published in both English and Welsh. The text also blends both languages: the children’s Welsh dialogue is often rendered directly, without translation. Though this could be daunting for some readers, particularly when confronted by words that appear to have no vowels, it doesn’t spoil the experience of reading the novel because as this example shows, the context makes the meaning understandable.
‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.
The sniffing quietens.
‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.
Although Pigeon is the eponymous hero he doesn’t get to tell his own story. The narrative voice belongs principally to Iola , an intelligent and observant girl who relates their escapades and her own sense of loneliness with unflinching honesty. What we learn about Pigeon comes from Iola or a third person narrator, an approach that perfectly reflects the parallel Conran draws between this boy and the bird whose name he shares. Pigeons – as anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island will know – are generally considered unintelligent and dull but Conran has her narrator remind us, they’re also capable of heroic feats, carrying messages long distance in times of war. As the boy Pigeon grows into manhood he too finds the courage to take control of his life.
Pigeon is a memorable novel with characters that tug at the heartstrings. It has a few flaws – the backstory of Gwyn’s Italian mother Mrs Gelataio (you can join me in groaning over that name) and her determination to find her son a wife for example – jarred with its over reliance on the comedy of her Anglo-Italian lingo and Conran overdid the theme of story-telling. But it’s still a very strong first novel and I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on what she does next.
She does have another novel in the pipeline but she was keeping the details close to her chest when I caught up with her after the awards ceremony. All she would say is that it’s about a friendship and is set in a British seaside resort. “Not in Wales,” she emphasises. But after a few seconds, adds: “ That could change.” No date is set yet for to completion and she won’t be drawn on that so we just have to hope it doesn’t take as long as the seven years of gestation with Pigeon. She doesn’t write with a plan in mind, preferring to let the work grow organically. Pigeon grew from a single image of children chasing the ice cream van.
“Working on the novel was a long journey but it taught me a lot about how to be an author,.” she reflected. She new she wanted it to be a hybrid book, not a pure coming -of-age tale, and one that was very much a book from Wales that blended English and Welsh languages. It was her publisher’s idea however to produce simultaneous translated versions. As a fluent Welsh speaker Alys Conran could have done the translation herself but chose not to do. “I couldn’t have done a translation so effectively it would have even writing another book and I really didn’t want to write a second Pigeon.”
Invariably the question arises about the lack of prominence of writers from Wales on the world stage. “Look at the other writers in the shortlist for these awards, Cynan Jones and Jo Mazelis do have an international following” counters Alys. She does accept that there are challenges in getting the same level of attention for fiction from Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve heard people make negative comments about books set in Wales, that they don’t have enough scope. But that seems very unfair – Steinbeck and Faulkner set their work firmly in one location yet we don’t hear comments about lack of scope so why should this apply to Wales?”
While her Welsh identity is important to Alys Conran, equally critical is that she doesn’t view it as a constraint. “Identity shouldn’t be a straight jacket and authors shouldn’t view it as if it stops them writing about broader issues. I prefer to see it as a privileged point of view through which we can look at the world.”
About the book: Pigeon is published by Ceredigion-based publishers, Parthian.
About the author: Alys Conran was born in North Wales, studied literature at Edinburgh and then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in. Relative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. Her fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. At the 2017 Literature Wales Awards she topped the public vote for the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and then went on to pick up the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award and the overall Book of the Year award for her debut novel Pigeon.
Carol Lovekin definitely can’t be accused of taking an easy path for her second novel Snow Sisters. It’s a cross-over between Gothic tale and family drama that juggles three narrative viewpoints and three separate timelines. The result could easily have been a mess but instead it’s a multi-layered narrative about the enduring nature of the past and the resilience of sisterly love.
Snow Sisters takes place at Gull House, an imposing Victorian-style house in Wales complete with a fairy-tale tower and hiding places. Storms and winds from the nearby sea-shore batter its stone walls and screeching gulls circle overhead but its inhabitants are protected behind iron gates, shrubs and a garden wall of gnarled branches of wisteria hanging in ropes. It’s a house “redolent with the murmurs of people from other lives.” This was once the home of the Pryce family. Now it lies empty, abandoned when its last occupants; the sisters Meredith and Verity and their artist mother Allegra; were forced to move to London. Twenty years later Allegra makes a return visit to the house; a trip that rekindles memories of the past and the time when Meredith found a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. It proves to be a Pandora’s box, for in opening the box, Meredith unlocks the ghost of Angharad, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who has a horrific secret she must reveal before she can be at rest. The teenage girls, but most particularly Meredith, become the conduit for Angharad to tell her story but as it unfolds this voice from the past threatens to destroy the bond between the sisters.
The ghost aspect of Snow Sisters didn’t interest me greatly — I thought it leaned a little too much to the obvious — but the depiction of the fraught relationships between the two girls and their mother was impressive. Allegra is a splendidly drawn character; a tempestuous woman who drifts about in beads and floating frocks leaving her daughters to feed, clothe and generally fend for themselves. She comes across as a monstrous figure at times; one minute lavishing attention on her daughters , the next being cruel and dismissive. Meredith, the youngest, is her favourite; the daughter who can do no wrong but from whom in return she seeks adoration. Towards Verity she is hostile, particularly when the girl challenges her smoking and drinking habits and her affair with a much younger man. Allegra’s desire for happiness is what eventually drives the trio from the house despite her daughters’ objections. Yet Allegra is a mass of contradictions; narcissistic certainly but also vulnerable and pitiable in her constant pursuit of love.
With such a distant mother it is no surprise that the girls turn to each other for support. They squabble as all sisters do but there is a bond between them so strong that Verity believes “I know the shape of her heart. She’s under my skin, threaded into my heartbeat, her shadow is stitched to my edges.” United against Allegra, they are also of one mind in their love for their home Gull House and the garden planted with varieties of blue flowers by their beloved grandmother.
The depiction of Gull House is one of the triumphs of Snow Sisters. It, more than the ghostly manifestations, gives the novel its atmosphere and its sense of the past breaking through. This is a house Meredith believes has a heart. Though overgrown and a little forlorn by the time Verity makes her return trip, its allure is evident:
The elegant door, its blue-salt-worn to grey, still takes my breath away.
It’s a thing of beauty, this door, and even with the paint peeling, the shape of it remains insanely lovely. It sits in the stone facade of the house like a picture… At the top, set into the ornately curved frame, is a small window adorned with stained glass flowers. The curve continues out to the side and in it more small sections of glinting glass like jewels.
Every time I came across a description of the house and its gardens I wanted to immediately jump in my car and drive there, hoping against hope there would be a For Sale sign in its grounds and Angharad’s ghost will have been given notice to quit.
About the book: Snow Sisters is the second novel by Carol Lovekin. It was published by Honno in September 2017. In October it was chosen by the Welsh Books Council as their Book of the Month. I received a copy from the publishers in return for an honest review.
About the author: Carol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire, England but has lived in Wales since 1979. The legends and landscape of wales inform her writing as she explains in this post about Snow Sisters for Book Trail. Her first novel, Ghostbird, was released in 2016 . You can follow Carol’s blog here.
Why I read this book: I first heard of Carol Lovekin about a year ago when I went to a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in search of books by Wales-based authors and met some of the wonderful team at Honno. I do have a copy of Ghostbird which I meant to read this summer but somehow went off track. I thought I would make up for that omission by reading her latest novel.
This time last year I was nervously awaiting my first radiotherapy session, with all the dire warnings of the side effects ringing in my ears. Fortunately apart from tiredness brought on by having to do the trek to the hospital every day and hang around until the staff judged I’d drunk enough liquid, I suffered no ill effects. Twelve months on, with four rounds of surgery and a broken arm bone dealt with, I’m back in the gym and have started up a little walking group in my village. We had 80 people show interest initially but they’ve gradually fallen by the wayside as the weather has become more fickle and it gets darker earlier every week. We have a core group now that is determined to keep going even if some days we will have to wear head torches….
Even more exciting is that we have a holiday booked. First one in two years. Hooray. So in about 10 days I’ll be heading for South Africa in search of some much needed sunshine, relaxation, good food and of course the odd glass of wine. I’ve already started fretting about what books I’ll take — honestly this is far more stressful than deciding what clothes/shoes etc I should pack. I’m not alone it seems — Tom who blogs at Hogglestock.com solved his problem by counting the number of pages in each book on his list of possibles, weighing them and then using some formula to work out what would give him the best return. Now that’s dedication! I can’t be doing with that amount of effort myself. I’m planning on taking just three ‘real’ books, all of which I would be happy to leave behind when I’m done. I’ll have my e reader as well and I may even find my way to a local bookshop or two in search of some African authors.
But that’s all in the future. This post is meant to capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to November 1, 2017.
Right after finishing my 44th Booker Prize winner —Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (reviewed here) — I picked up another Booker winner that has greatly divided opinion over the years. How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman won the prize in 1994. It’s told in a stream of consciousness style using what can be called ‘fruity’ Glaswegian language. The high expletive count and the strong working voice and vocabulary meant it was given a less than rapturous reception when it was published. One columnist accused Kelman of “literary vandalism” and little more than the transcript of a rambling, drunk. It does ramble admittedly but it’s not surprising since the protagonist is an ex-con by the name of Sammy who wakes in an alleyway one Sunday morning to find he is wearing another man’s shoes. He tries to piece together the details of a two-day drinking binge. After getting into a scrap with some plain clothes police officers and taken into custody he recovers to find he is completely blind. That’s as far as I’ve got – not the most cheery of subjects is it? It’s not difficult to read. In fact I was surprised to find how few pages it took before I was able to latch on to the rhythm and flow of Sammy’s voice.
This is a novel best read in small chunks it seems so as a contrast I’ve been reading Carole Lovekin’s recently published Snow Sisters. It will be the first of her books that I’ve read and I chose it as part of my interest in promoting authors and publishers from Wales. I don’t go a bundle on ghostly fiction so the plot device of a voice from the past that begins to haunt two sisters in their home in Wales doesn’t interest me that as much as the relationship between the sisters and with their distracted artist mother. The publishers Honno have chosen a stunning image for the cover by the way.
Thinking of reading next…
I have some other books by Welsh authors that I was hoping to read before November 11th when the Wales Book of the Year prize is announced. Unfortunately the plan went awry because I got distracted by the #1968club project recently for which I read Chocky by John Wyndham (see the review here) and Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So it’s unlikely I’ll read all three shortlisted fiction titles. I’ll probably start with Cove by Cynan Jones who is the best known name to make it to the shortlist. It’s his fifth novel.
The state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. A splurge last month has done a bit of damage but not too bad since the trend is still downward overall — I’m now at 288. I just have to watch out for the sale in the library that begins tomorrow.
One of the plus sides of autumn is that the broadcasters always come out with their new productions and series. Sadly the Great British Bake Off has now finished for another year. Maybe it’s just as well because watching it leaves me feeling very inadequate when I compare the contestants’ creations to my own feeble efforts. Talking of inadequacy, have any of you been watching the latest run of The Apprentice? The quality of contestants has been going downhill steadily for a few years now but I think they’ve reached rock bottom with this lot. They’re absolutely useless and I wouldn’t let them near a market stall let alone a business.
Recently I watched Gunpowder which was an account of the true-life plot by disaffected Catholics in the seventeenth century to bring down the King that we Brits mark every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires. It’s quite a brutal, no holds barred treatment. The first thirty minutes brought us that most gruesome form of execution where the guilty party ( a young priest) was hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Before that we saw a less common form of death, called Peine forte et dure (translated as “hard and forceful punishment”), where the accused is subjected to heavy weights placed on their chest, effectively crushing them to death. The sofa cushions came in handy more than once I confess. Sadly the main issue with the series wasn’t the level of violence (though thats been a source of much criticism) but the fact that the conspirators began to look more like catwalk models with judicious splodges of mud for effect, than desperados. Roll on the next series of Netflix’s superb The Queen, for historical accuracy and superb acting.
And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming to you from the sunny climes of Cape Town. Until then, happy reading everyone.
After months of restraint the floodgates of book acquisition opened wide this week: five purchases, a review copy and two library books.
The library books are in aid of the #1968Club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings which starts on Monday, October 30. If you’re not familiar with the club, you can find an explanation here. Despite having more than 200 unread books on my shelves I didn’t have even one that was published in 1968. A quick trip the library and problem solved however. I’m reading Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs which was the third of her novels to feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the role of amateur detectives. I’ve also taken the unusual (for me) path of reading a work of science fiction. Chocky is a short novel by John Wyndham whose novels I loved when I was much younger. This one features a 12 year old boy who suddenly begins holding conversations with an invisible companion. It turns out not to be a benign imaginary friend but an alien consciousness sent from its home planet to locate other planets that can be colonised.
Now that my broken arm has mended to the point where I can drive again, I’ve been re-acquainted with retail outlets which of course includes bookshops. I haven’t been in one for about 3 months so must have been feeling rather deprived because when I did cross the threshold of a little independent bookseller last week, I was so dazzled I could easily have walked away with half the shop. They had a wonderful display of the books shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award, an accolade which is given annually to works of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction in Welsh and English. The winners will be announced on November 11 and I’ll be going to the event so I thought I should be at least familiar with the three shortlisted fiction titles.
- Pigeon by Alys Conran: A coming of age novel that turns into something of a murder mystery. Set in North Wales it undercuts ideas of the countryside as a childhood idyll
- Cove by Cynan Jones: Jones’ fifth novel opens with a kayaker struck by lightening during a sudden storm. Injured and adrift, his memory is shattered. He has to rely on his instincts to get back to shore.
- Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis: A short-story collection that has a dark, gothic atmosphere
I also got tempted by two other novels: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa , an author I’ve not come across before. This is a novel about a family who flee Nazi-occupied Germany only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion. I also picked up Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale.
Continuing on the theme of fiction by writers in Wales, the wonderful team at Honno Press have sent me Snow Sisters, the latest novel by Carol Lovekin. Two sisters discover a dusty sewing box in the attic of their secluded home on the edge of the sea. Once opened the box sets free the ghost of a Victorian child who is desperate to tell her secret.
If I’m not careful all the good work I’ve put in during the year to reduce my collection of unread books will be wiped out. So I just need to believe that there are no new books being published in the next few months. That’s true isn’t it?
Today in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales.
Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme. Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales?
A good starting point would be www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.
Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?” They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?
I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women— is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.
Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?
Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.
Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?
I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…
Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?
They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.
Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales Is that something that you’re concerned about?
It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.
Q. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years?
Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond — a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties— hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.
Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?
Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).
Intrigued? Want to know more?
- You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress) and via Twitter @honno.
- To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
- You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016