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“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy…”
Mari opened her eyes. Down on her knees, she saw shapes forming in the dark. There came that fluttering sound again. At the little window, day was close; the wind’s thin breath a cloud on the glass. A flutter, like fingers leafing through pages. She got up to look. Against the cold glass, a butterfly beat a muted prayer for escape. Her pupils got darker, helping her penetrate the grey. When she was a little girl they’d say butterflies were just leaves reincarnated. She’d mulled it over then, her mood lifted on a fancy of fortunes befalling a girl in a world where one small leaf can bloom all colours, sprout wings, up sticks and up up away into the sunset. She shivered.
The noise had awoken Nanw, who stretched out lazily. Mari went over and chattered to her softly to keep her calm. The sea was breathing in the distance, dark against the growing light, and seagulls were being flung across the air like litter. The butterfly nagged gently like an old flame. Should she let it outside, it was sure to die, weak and failing as it already was from a winter in the cottage. But it was desperate to be let go. Nanw sat up, enchanted by the ragged wings. Mari caught it at the corner of the glass, cupping her hands around it as though she were receiving communion. She nudged open the sash with her elbow, the wings pulsing weakly on her palm. She stretched her arms out and a gust snatched the insect away across the garden. Now you could hear the ringing of wind in the rigging of boats below. Fear crept through her. She banged the window shut and drew the loose folds of her nightie around her. She gazed into the gloom, the butterfly’s powder a gold dust on her fingertips.
“Amen,” she whispered.
Nanw was mimicking her by leaning against her cage’s grid, arms clutched round her body. The weak light glowed silver in Mari’s hair, and ruby across the dark face of the monkey.
The chill had crept up Mari’s spine so she fetched a cardigan and hooked it over her shoulders. She let the cat into the bedroom to keep Nanw company while she had her breakfast.
The cottage was nestled on a remote road above the sea, surrounded by crooked trees. Opposite the low doorway, across the road, was an old stile marking the way down to the beach. The three small rooms were filled with clutter. Mari’s treasures choked the narrow kitchen passage, and vintage clothes hung along each wall. Papers were piled all anyhow, while the thick walls were so badly affected by damp that she had to keep a fire going in the bedroom. She went barefoot along the lino to the kitchen and lowered an egg on a spoon into a saucepan of water. She dried the spoon on her nightie, thrusting it into some cranny of an old wireless needing technical TLC after Nanw broke the aerial in a fit of temper. Mari listened to the radio’s far-off voices as she made herself a cup of tea. She left the teabag steaming on the sink.
She waited for the egg to rap out in Morse code that it was ready, and she sat down to eat at that early hour. Mari finished her egg, leaving the shell rocking on the table.
In the bedroom she put on two pairs of socks, and pushed her petticoat into the top of her trousers. Tying her money bag around her waist, she hid it under rolls of jumper. She threw some nuts over to Nanw who set to cracking them, eager for the next one even before she’d had the first. Years ago, the monkey would have gone with her mistress: she had been good for business. But times had changed; one nip and a customer would play hell. Mari crouched to say goodbye, stroking her little black hands, while Nanw tried to filch the bracelets chiming around Mari’s wrists. The cat half-woke and whipped her tail in envy.
“Stay here now, sweetie; the cat’ll keep you company.”
Mari stood up, letting go of the hands which curled back around the bars. Nanw turned her big eyes on her. Mari shut the door and went into the front room. She rummaged among the teddies in the toy chest and found a deep leather box. She held it tight against her breast like a child and carried it out carefully to the car, locking the door behind her.
Squalls stifled the sound of the engine starting up. The clock’s staccato said quarter to five. Dry leaves and rubbish were being blown about the garden. From her cell, Nanw saw the car depart, and she glanced out into the garden at a small colourful leaf clutching at blades of grass. The cat began to purr.
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis, translation from Welsh by Gwen Davies. Published September 2019 by Honno. This extract is published with the permission of the author and publisher. My review of the novel is here.
In her second novel, Dignity, Alys Conran delivers a touching tale of three women separated by generations, history and culture. Yet they are united in their spirited assertion of their right to independence and their search for the meaning of ‘home’.
Through the first person narratives of these women, Dignity takes us from a modern English seaside resort that has seen better days to pre-war India under British control. As the narrative progresses it asks questions about the nature of home and the impact of colonialism on the individual.
First we encounter Magda who lives alone in a seaside town that is well past its best. Confined to a wheelchair in a sprawling, disintegrating Victorian house, her only visitors are care workers. Magda resents their presence as she fiercely tries to maintain her dignity in the face of declining health and advancing years.
Every care worker despatched to help her feed and wash, experiences the brunt of her bad temper and sharp tongue. Shusheela, a part time student and daughter of Bengali immigrants, is the only care assistant who finds a way to penetrate Magda’s stubborn exterior. She recognises that Magda uses rudeness as a shield and that “underneath it all, she’s desperately sad.”
Shusheela has problems of her own. Still grieving after her mother’s death, she is trying to support her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is is suffering from PTSD. And then she discovers she is pregnant.
The discovery becomes the catalyst for an unlikely – and sometimes fraught – relationship between these two women. Magda’s practical, no nonsense attitude proves to be exactly the support Susheela needs. She recognises that this girl is not like the legion of other care workers – this one has dignity.
The girl’s Bengali heritage unlocks Magda’s memories of her childhood in colonial India and the terrible secrets surrounding her mother Evelyn.
It’s Evelyn’s story that most captured my interest. She arrives in India as the young wife of an engineer ( a man she barely knows), apprehensive about how to create a new home up to the standard of that left behind in Britain.
Even before her ship docks she is marked out as different from the other British wives. She has brought no romantic novels with her nor does she share their love of gossip. Dignity shows how adjusting to her new life and the expectations of a Raj wife, prove challenging. She dislikes the way servants are treated and the parochial attitudes of the other wives.
She tries desperately to maintain her independence, to forge her own way of dealing with India. But gradually Evelyn changes; worn down by the expectations of respectability and the pressure to conform. The schoolteacher who arrives in India as warmhearted and independent in spirit becomes as cold as her husband and cannot even relate to her daughter.
… I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…
Dignity is a touching story that shows the damage of the colonial experience. You feel for Evelyn in her confusion on first arriving in India and in the criticism she faces because of her relationships with the servants.
It’s evident that this is a story that cannot end happily for her.
But Evelyn is not the only victim. For Magda having been raised surrounded by servants and privileges is suddenly despatched back to England. A country that is not Home, but a foreign land. One in which she will be alone.
Dignity is a novel I enjoyed right from the first pages. The characters could easily have been stereotypes but Alys Conran has made each woman distinctly human and grounded in reality.
As the story wends it way through the lives of these three women it raises questions about the effect of the Colonial experience and also the meaning of “Home”.
Evelyn thinks about “Home” all the time she is India. It’s what all the wives do, eagerly scrutinising the outfits of any new arrival so they can copy the latest fashion. But Evelyn that all their memories are idealised the longer they are out of England. Home for her is
sitting in my mother’s kitchen, shelling peas, with light flowing in through her net curtains and the sound of children playing outside…
But she knows this is an England that cannot exist. That home is fading just as much as she is, that “the very guts of me are being worked on by this India ….and I am slowly less and less of what I was.”
Her daughter’s view of home is significantly less idealised. Though there is a doormat at her house which bears the word “Home’ this is a building which she views more like a fortress. A house that “has to hold out against the changing world outside.”
This is a touching, thoughtful novel, showing characters who are vulnerable and uncertain how to deal with the issues that life has thrown at them.
I had enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. But I had wondered whether she would be as effective when she broke out of her Welsh milieu. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, in April 2019. My copy was provided free by the publishers in return for an honest review.
Alys Conran was born in North Wales. She is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. In 2017 she won the Book of the Year prize in the Literature Wales Awards for her debut novel Pigeon.
The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:
This is the first truly comprehensive guide to the literary traditions and heritage of Wales. The last attempt at such a book was in 1955 but it focussed exclusively on people writing in the medium of the Welsh language. It also went only as far as the end of the 19th century.
The editors of the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature took a more holistic view; seeing English/Welsh bilingualism as the ‘norm’ and the two languages existing in harmony not conflict.
They argue that much of contemporary Welsh literature is the product of that bilingual culture. Dylan Thomas – the author best known within and without of Wales – is a product of that culture, they assert. His exposure to both languages from his childhood years, made him the poet that people love. “The languages are not in opposition to each other,: said Geraint Evans, “one could not exist without the other.”
The two editors eschew a chronological approach in favour of a thematic series of essays that show how Welsh literature was – and continues to be – influenced by significant political and cultural changes.
Some essays examine the tradition of poetry and prose writing that begins in post-Roman times, with poetry like Y Gododdin, supposedly an eye witness account of men slaughtered in battle. Other chapters look at the Welsh love of myth and legend, reflected in the tales of The Mabinogion, and the birth of the Eisteddfod as a celebration of music, poetry and prose in the Welsh language. A key chapter considers how the discovery of rich coal seams in South Wales, which transformed a previously agricultural country into a powerhouse of industry, influenced authors like Gwyn Thomas.
Coming up to the present day, much of the later section of the book considers the impact that devolution and self-governance in 1999 had on the attitudes and pre-occupations of contemporary writers.
What the essays show is that many of the earlier authors writing in Wales shared a love of the land and the country But today’s authors see themselves more in the context of the city, not the countryside.
Is there a need for a book of this nature?
The two authors – as you’d expect – are in no doubt. “We felt there was a huge gap,” said Professor Helen Fulton.
People know about The Mabinogion and Dylan Thomas but generally there is a lack of knowledge about what is one of the oldest continual literary traditions in Europe. We want our guide to show how Welsh literature is a rich and genuinely international literature.
She has a point. Ask a room of even well-read people to name a Welsh author and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get further than Dylan Thomas. They’re highly unlikely to name some of the authors and titles I’ve listed on my page 86 novels from Wales. As talented as these authors are, they’re not in the same league as their Irish or Scottish authors, a fact highlighted by one of the audience members at a launch event in Swansea. There is no Welsh equivalent of Colm Toibin, or Oscar Wilde, or James Joyce, he pointed out.
The signs are however promising that interest in Welsh literature is increasing. The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature has sold well in the United States where it fits well with study programmes on comparative literature. There is active discussion also within Wales about changing the schools curriculum to ensure it contains some texts from Wales.
Perhaps this is the case of the right book at the right time?
The guide is published by Cambridge University Press as a companion publication in their long-established series which includes guides to literature in English, children’s literature, Shakespeare and women’s writing. The Guide to Welsh Literature was published in June 2019.
Professor Helen Fulton trained as a Celticist at the University of Oxford and has since specialised in medieval Welsh literature and its connections with other Celtic literatures and with the literatures of medieval England. She is currently Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol’s Department of English
Geraint Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Swansea University. His research interests include literary modernism, Welsh writing in English and the history of the book in Britain.
The last two months saw a splurge of book purchases and acquisitions, sending my TBR count to its highest level for three years.
It’s giving me a nudge that it’s time to do a cull of the bookshelves (more on that shortly).
But for now let me tell you about the 19 titles that have made it through the BookerTalk doors. They’re a mix of:
Mythos by Stephen Fry: I’ve been complaining for years about my shaky knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. There are plenty of books around on the topic of course though lots of them are rather heavy going. Fry is an appetiser in a sense, an entertaining way to begin getting acquainted with all those gods and goddesses. This could come in very useful when I’m reading Circe by Madelaine Miller which is the book club choice this month.
Two more titles to add to my collection of books by Émile Zola”
Le rêve (The Dream) is the sixteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. It’s about a poor embroideress who falls in love with the son of a wealthy aristocratic family. This being Zola, it doesn’t of course end happily ever after.
La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The Sin of Abbe Mouret) is the fifth novel in the series. It’s anticlerical in tone and scope, focussing on the experiences of an obsessively devout priest sent to a remote Provençal backwater village whose inhabitants don’t share his enthusiasm for the church.
I’ve been very restrained in accepting review copies and even more restrained with NetGalley. But these were titles I couldn’t resist:
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis (that’s the one you can see in the photo with September 2019 written on the spine. It’s being published by Honno in that month. Caryl is a former winner of the Wales Book of the Year and her new novel sounds different. It’s about a woman who acquires trinkets by clearing houses after the occupiers have died. In her tiny coastal cottage she surrounds herself with photographs and letters of these complete strangers.
The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg. This is a fantasy novel for children which comes out in July. Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, it’s about a fantasy theme park here the rule is “happily ever after.” This isn’t my usual kind of book but I’ve decided its time to get out of my comfort zone periodically and I’m intrigued by the description that this story is told through court testimonies and interrogation records
The Fast Spell Breather by Julie Pike. Another fantasy novel for children. The main character is a girl who uses magic to protect her village. All works fine until the day she slips up. Published by Oxford University Press.
The Innocent Wife and One More Lie by Amy Lloyd: I won both of these thrillers in a giveaway hosted by Kath who blogs at NutPress.
The Innocent Wife is Amy Lloyd’s debut novel, She won the Daily Mail Bestseller Competition with it in 2016. One More Lie is her second novel.
Kath’s enthusiastic reviews are here and here.
Are You the F**king Doctor by Dr Liam Farrell. This was passed on by Susan who blogs at Booksaremycwtches
She thought it would be a good companion read to This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay which I’ve just finished reading. Kay was a senior house doctor in an NHS hospital where he specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology. Farrell’s book which is subtitled: Stories from the Bleeding Edge of Medicine, reflects on his work as a general practitioner. So both people are the front line of care but working in different circumstances. Susan’s review is here.
West by Carys Davies. I read Carys’ short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike in 2015 and though I’m not generally a fan of short stories, this books was superb. West is her first venture into novels and it’s been described as ‘stunning.’
In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. This is the second in the Harry Prober-Lloyd series of historical crime novels set in Wales. I read the first, None So Blind, earlier this year and was so engrossed in the tale of a man suffering a degenerative eye condition who becomes a coroner, that I was glad I didn’t have to wait long before the follow up was published.
Human, Being by Gareth Davies. This has been described as the male version of Bridget Jones’ Diary. That comparison would normally have me racing out of the bookshop door faster than Usain Bolt. But having heard Gareth read some extracts at the launch, I don’t think the description really does justice to this tale of a middle aged comedian who’s been abandoned by his wife and has lost his comic mo-jo.
A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carole Strachan . Published by Cinnamon Press, this is the mysterious disappearance of a successful opera singer. Two musicians facing life-changing crises of their own, decide to look for her. Although the mystery is a key aspect of the novel, this is very much a novel about character.
Riverflow by Alison Layland. This was published in the last two weeks. It’s Alison’s second novel and takes the theme of a community protest about the impact of fracking. Alison is the latest guest in my Cwtch Corner series.
Who can resist a bargain? Not me for sure.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best of ideas to volunteer to help at a book sale at a National Trust property? Though I picked out plenty of books for visitors to my staff, there were also more than a few that caught my eye. I think I was remarkably restrained in buying just two.
Actually it was just one purchase initially but then I had to call into the property on day two of the sale, and saw two other books I had to have…..
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler . I read loads of her books in the past but haven’t done so for quite a few years now. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015 but lost out to A History of Seven Killings (one of the books I failed to finish this year).
A Rising Man by Abir Mukerjee. If I was being disingenuous I wouldn’t count this book since I already have an e-version. But it was only 50p and I find it much easier to read in paper format. It’s the first in a series about a British policeman seconded to Calcutta.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. A friend has been raving about Harper’s novels and promised to pass on her copy of the first The Dry. But I’m still waiting…. In the meantime this was at the book sale. I know many other bloggers have recommended Harper, so maybe one of them can tell me whether to hold off from reading Force of Nature until I’ve read the two previous novels from this Australian author???
Alison Layland is a woman with many talents.
She’s been a quantity surveyor and a taxi driver. She’s now a writer, translator and member of the highly esteemed Gorsedd of the Bards.
Her second novel ‘Riverflow ‘ confronts the controversial issue of fracking and its impact on a rural community.
Q. Describe your new novel Riverflow in one sentence.
It’s a novel of family secrets, community tensions and environmental protest against a background of fracking and floods on the river Severn.
Q. Why did you decide to tackle environmental issues in this novel ?
“I’ve always been passionate about environmental issues and try to live as “green” a life as possible. I specifically wanted to focus on these issues when I wrote Riverflow, with the intention of writing an engaging, character-driven novel, but through the characters’ own lives and passions raising readers’ awareness of these issues and the climate crisis, and hopefully giving some food for thought.
Between starting to write it and publication, I’m pleased that these issues have gained a certain amount of prominence through movements such as Extinction Rebellion. We also have the work of Greta Thunberg and the school climate strikers, David Attenborough, Chris Packham and many others. However, there’s still a long way to go in terms of government and corporate action.
The process of writing has also inspired me to get personally involved, and I’m now an active campaigner with Extinction Rebellion“
Q. How difficult is it when you are translating fiction, to maintain the voice/style of your writer? Does the author in you ever want to change some part of the text?
“Getting to know, and conveying, the author’s voice is an essential and enjoyable aspect of translating fiction.
It does take a few chapters for me to fully immerse myself in it, and in my subsequent redrafts and revisions, it’s the early chapters that need the most work.
I think being an author in my own right possibly makes it easier for me not to “interfere” unduly, as I have my own voice and way of writing and can keep that separate from my translation work.
Issues often arise in translating for a different culture. For example, German cultural references might need to be subtly explained to English-speaking readers. Or differences in style may be required in order to appeal to a different readership. Both I and my editors may make changes, in consultation with the author.”
Q. What made you decide to add ‘author’ to your career portfolio?
“I’ve always told myself stories and been an avid reader. I’ve always enjoyed working with words and always wanted to do something creative. So, although it wasn’t something I seriously considered when I was younger, I guess it was likely if not inevitable that I would become a writer – eventually!
I started writing fiction when we moved to Wales in 1997. I immediately set out to learn the language and our tutor happened to be a poet and creative writing tutor. After our language course came to an end, the group had achieved a lovely momentum and we carried on with creative writing classes.
I found, strangely, that writing in a second language removed my self-consciousness barriers. Soon I was writing short stories and flash fiction in Welsh. My first (unpublished) novel was also written in Welsh. By translating that for friends and family to read, I finally gained the confidence to begin writing in my native language, English.“
Q. As a non-native Welsh person, how has your experience as an ‘outsider’ shaped your perspective on the country?
I lived in rural mid-Wales from 1997 until about three years ago, when we moved to a house right on the border, and learning the language has given me a unique insight into the literature and culture of Wales.
Living in the kind of rural and village communities that characterise a lot of this area of Wales is also fascinating, and feeds into my writing, although the village on the banks of the Severn that forms the setting for Riverflow is fictional.
The border town of Oswestry and the surrounding area, although just in Shropshire, is a fluid one with a very Welsh feel and a Welsh-speaking community. I’ve sometimes felt that these places are just as, if not more, “Welsh” in character than certain places within Wales. Especially here, but also in the close-knit communities of rural Wales where there are a substantial number of English incomers, there’s a lot of – usually friendly – cultural banter.
As a Welsh speaker and “Cymraes fabwysiedig” (adoptive Welsh woman) I sometimes feel I have a foot in both camps, which is great for a writer and people-watcher!
Q. Do you enjoy participating in literary events?
“Despite being really nervous beforehand, I really enjoy public events.
I particularly enjoy interview and panel formats, like the one at Crime & Coffee, ( a festival organised by Cardiff library service) which was a panel discussion with fellow Honno authors Jan Newton and Gaby Koppel.
Another activity I enjoy is being asked to visit reading groups; it’s lovely to meet readers, talk about their reactions to my and others’ books, and answer questions about writing.
I particularly enjoy questions or comments from people who are touched by the subject-matter – when talking about Someone Else’s Conflict, that is people who have first-hand experience of the 1990s conflicts in the Balkans, and with Riverflow – although I’ve only talked about it at a couple of events so far – it’s people who are involved in environmentalism or protest.“
Q. What book is on your bedside table right now?
“I’m about to start This is Not a Drill, the recently published Extinction Rebellion handbook. It’s probably not ideal bedtime reading as thinking about the future of the planet is a decidedly scary prospect right now, but I’m sure that many of the essays and articles will be essential reading. It’s also a book I intend to pass on to people after I’ve finished reading it.“
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
One thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time.
Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #15BooksofSummer reading list includes a title using one of my dreaded words. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world?
Ghostbird draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.
Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.
Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.
In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.
All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl.
Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili.
Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship with her mother.
The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.
Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven.
Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom.
Introducing Carol Lovekin
Carol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along
Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.
Why I read Ghostbird
A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here).
When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
Alis Hawkins has been on a month-long tour of independent bookshops in Wales to promote her latest novel In Two Minds. It’s the second in her
Teifi Valley Coroner series – the third Those Who Can – is due out in May 2020. I managed to catch up with her during a break from meeting local readers in Nickleby’s book shop in Llantwit Major.
Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.
Q. This is the second in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?
“Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.
It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)
And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.
There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”
Q.There’s a risk when writing historical fiction that the narrative gets overloaded with historical information (many readers find this irritating). How do you try to get the right balance?
“I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.
So, how do I avoid it?
I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place. For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.) But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?
For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.
Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds – it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”
Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away?
“Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.
Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.
But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”
Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book
“Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.”
Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?
“That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.“
Q. What book are you reading at the moment?
“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.
My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!
And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
None So Blind was published in 2017. In Two Minds was published by Dome Press in May 2019. She is now working on the third title in The Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Can.
She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales.
You can learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk
She is also on Facebook at AlisHawkinsAuthor and on Twitter @Alis_Hawkins
My review of None So Blind is here
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
The latest author to join me in Cwtch Corner is Vanessa Savage whose debut novel The Woman in the Dark was published earlier this year to considerable acclaim. It’s an intense psychological thriller about Patrick and his wife, Sarah (who is suffering from depression after her mother’s death) who buy a gothic seaside house whose previous occupants were brutally murdered.
I believe the line between the two genres can be quite finely drawn. A domestic noir is as much about relationships as a women’s fiction novel with a romantic thread – just darker! I like writing about relationships in character-driven stories and I felt my first idea for a novel fell more into the women’s fiction genre and joined the New Writer’s Scheme at the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). But the longer I wrote, the clearer it became to me that, as a writer, what I wanted was to explore the darker side of relationships – where love tips over into obsession, what happens when the happy-ever-after goes wrong. I wanted my characters to kill rather than kiss each other!”
Q. What inspired you to write The Woman in the Dark?
“I knew I wanted to write a ‘behind closed doors’ psychological thriller about a family in crisis and their breakdown, but there was a missing element – the house. I became fascinated by the idea of house as character and the Murder House came from a series of what if questions after reading about a real-life murder house.
That house was destroyed, but it got me wondering… what if it wasn’t destroyed? What if it was actually your childhood home, a happy place before the terrible crimes? Could you move back into it and make it what it once was, or would it be forever haunted by its own history?
The idea that a house could hold memories, that it could be corrupted by horrible things happening within its walls really appealed to me as a writer. The creepy things that happen in the house – are they real, or the paranoid imaginings of my characters because they know the history of the house? As I developed the house as another character, the story came alive – it was the catalyst I needed.”
Q. For any author getting that first novel published can be a frustrating experience. How did you achieve it?
“Like many ‘debut’ writers, The Woman in the Dark is not the first book I’ve written, just the first to be published! I have a couple of unpublished books lurking in a bottom drawer, and prior to that, I wrote a lot of short fiction – short stories published in magazines and flash fiction which is published online and in anthologies.
I took the traditional route to publication – I researched literary agents who I thought would like my work, both using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and online (agents love twitter so it’s a great place to find out what they’re looking for!). I was fortunate to sign with Juliet Mushens at Caskie Mushens, who is a fantastic agent. We went back and forth editing the book, and it went on submission to publishers in June 2017.
It went to auction in the UK, selling world English rights to Sphere in the UK and Grand Central in the US, went to auction in Germany and rights were also sold in Spain, France, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. It published in hardback and e-book in January 2019 in the UK and will be out in paperback in July.”
Q. In your acknowledgements you say you received help from a police officer. What form did that take ?
“I worked with Stuart Gibbon at GIB Consultancy, a former senior police detective who now runs a consultancy specialising in advising writers on police procedure. I wanted to ensure those elements were accurate in the book and having heard Stuart talk at a writer’s conference, knew he’d be able to help! For The Woman in the Dark, he was able to help by simply answering questions by email. For my second novel, which I’m currently editing, I send him a whole draft to read and he gave advice on all the criminal and police procedural elements. He has also written The Crime Writer’s Casebook, an invaluable resource for anyone writing crime novels.”
Q. What do you think are the elements of a first class thriller? Anyone in particular whose work you rate highly?
“It’s all about the tension and suspense in a psychological thriller – because it’s more internal rather than external action, we’re living with the character’s fears and paranoia, immersed in their every thought and invested in their journey. Every twist and turn raises the tension and (hopefully) the reader is desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next! I love this genre – an early favourite was Claire Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, which has the most amazing twist and a terrifying antagonist.”
Q. Readers can’t seem to get enough of psychological thrillers – why do you think they have such a strong appeal?
“With a straight action thriller, the reader enjoys an escapist adrenaline rush, with a police procedural, we watch the action once-removed, usually from the viewpoint of the investigating officer as we try to figure out whodunnit. They tend to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. With a psychological thriller, we’re living in the minds of the characters, experiencing their fears and paranoia. We live with them through the rising tension and suspense and experience the heart-pounding shock of every twist and turn. They can be scary, but it’s a safe way to be scared – unlike the characters whose minds we inhabit, we can close the book and walk away.”
Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives in South Wales (I discovered only recently that she lives just along the coast from me). She has twice been awarded with a Writers’ Bursary by Literature Wales.
She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short-listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize.
Vanessa has also had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and her work was broadcasted on the radio as a highly commended winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Vanessa is on Twitter: @VvSavage
My review of The Woman in the Dark is here
What are you currently reading?
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey was named one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time in 1990. It’s obviously stood the test of time since the Sunday Times culture magazine included it in a similar list just two weeks ago. Published in 1948 its about a Scotland Yard investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a young girl. I’ve read only one other book by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time – which was a fictionalised investigation into the deaths of The Princes in the Tower. A very different kind of novel but I liked her style of writing so snapped up a copy of The Franchise Affair when I spotted it in a second hand bookshop.
What did you recently finish reading?
The book club chose Kate Atkinson’s Transcription for our May meeting, Having disliked Life after Life to the point where I abandoned it part way through, I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the kind of books by Atkinson I used to love in the past. Transcription was definitely an improvement in the sense that I did make it to the last pages but otherwise this proved to be a seriously disappointing novel. The premise was promising – the past life of a woman who was recruited into the world of espionage, assigned to an obscure department of MI5 where she helped monitor the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers. But it never lived up to its promise.
I keep seeing this novel described as “a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy.” I don’t know who wrote that description (her publishers presumably) but it’s anything but a work of depth and power…. I’ll explain why when I write my review in a few days.
What do you think you’ll read next?
In theory my next read should be Evelina by Francis Burney since that was the result of the latest Classics Club spin. But having read a few pages I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for eighteenth century epistolary novel so have put Miss Burney on hold for another time.
I’m much more interested in the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer 2019 challenge. I’m aiming to read 15 between June 3 and September 3, all of them set in or written by authors from different countries.
I’ll be kicking off with a book written by Carol Lovekin, an author from Wales, that has been sitting in my bookcase for a few years. I do love the cover….
Ghostbird is set in a small Welsh village and the house called Ty Aderyn (the house of birds), home to generations of the Hopkins family. It’s a house of secrets, secrets that young Cadi Hopkins is determined to uncover.
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
Cwtch Corner was in Cardiff last month at the launch of Kate North’s collection of short stories Punch. Kate is a lecturer in creative writing and programme director for the MA in English Literature and Creative Writing pathways at Cardiff Metropolitan University. So naturally we talked about the value of creative writing courses. But first we chatted about her new book and the popularity of short stories.
Q. Short stories are hugely popular with readers – why do you think that’s the case?
“I think their size means that readers can get through a story in one sitting and feel like they’ve got something out of it in a short space of time. The ideal short story leaves the reader with something to think about or to continue in their own mind after reading. I think that’s also part of the appeal.
Q.Which writer of short stories has influenced you the most?
“That’s a hard question! There are so many good short story writers. But, if pushed to name one, I would pick Anna Kavan. I think she has been overlooked in past years but people are starting to notice how important she actually was in the mid 20th century. She wrote some very beautiful and uncanny things. The collection I would recommend isJulia and the Bazooka and Other Stories.
Q. Do you have a particular routine you like to follow when you are writing?
“There are consistent things I do when I write. Like I try to start as early as possible in the day. I am not so good at writing later in the day. I need to be in a quiet room on my own, I’m no good at writing in cafes or with music on like some people can do. And I tend to write in solid blasts for a period of days and weeks, then I take a bit of time to do something else before returning to things. But, that said, it does depend if I am writing to externally imposed deadline (like a commission) or not.
Q Your home is on fire… Which book from your overflowing shelves will you choose to save?
“To be honest, I would probably save my laptop before anything (other than my partner and kids of course). But, not to be a spoil sport, I’ll go with Six O’Clock Saints by Joan Windham. It’s a book written in the 1940s that I used to read around my grandparents’ house when I was little. It’s not very well written but I have an emotional attachment to it.”
Q. In a recent BBC Radio interview, Will Self made some highly critical comments about the value of creative writing courses. Do you think he has a valid point? Are creative writing courses worth doing?
>I think he makes a fair point and I don’t believe he suggests that creative writing (CW) courses aren’t worth doing. I would be suspicious of any course promoted as being able to help graduates ‘make a living from literary fiction’. I don’t think that is something anyone can guarantee. And as Self points out, CW courses offer the opportunity for students to develop themselves as writers. The possibilities that come from developing writing skills are hugely varied. I know of graduates from cw programmes who have gone into all sorts of jobs that need them to use their writing skills, such as computer game design, marketing, PR, editing, copywriting and teaching. So, yes, I would say that if you want to develop your writing skills, then courses are worth doing. You may find a career in literary fiction on the back of a course or you may not.
This perennial discussion always puzzles me. It doesn’t happen in other areas. For example, will a BA or MA in Music guarantee you will become a concert pianist? No, but if you would like to become a concert pianist it may be helpful to study on such a course. Will taking a sports science degree guarantee you will win the London marathon? No, but it may be helpful for you to study on such a programme if you are interested in winning marathons.
Q. As programme director for an MA creative writing programme you must meet scores of aspiring authors. What’s the number one piece of advice you give them?
Read, reflect, write and repeat. Good writers are good readers, read widely and critically. Also, find out how and what you need to write for yourself. To achieve this refer to the earlier instruction; read, reflect, write and repeat.
Kate North is a poet and short story writer. Her latest short story collection Punch was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2019. She also has a poetry collection The Way Out, published by Parthian in 2018.
If you’d like to learn more about Kate or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website
She’s also on Twitter: @katetnorth
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