Category Archives: Welsh authors
“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.
Dignity by Alys Conran
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.
Pride and Dignity in Old Age
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.
Upholding The Raj Tradition
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”.
Views 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 by Alys Conran: Fast Facts
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 Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton
The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:
- 825 pages (including a bibliography 63 pages long);
- 34 contributors by leading academics from Wales, England, North America, Canada and Australia and
- essays spanning 15 centuries of Welsh literature.
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.”
From battlefields to industrial sites
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.
Welsh literature on the world stage
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 Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature: Quick Facts
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.
After months of self- restraint the wheels are in danger of coming off my book wagon.
I’m now on the cusp of a freefall…
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:
- birthday gifts
- advance copies from publishers
- passed on by other bloggers
- new titles from Welsh authors
- hard-to-ignore bargains at book sales
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.
Review copies from publishers
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.
From other bloggers
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.
New Titles from Welsh Authors
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.
Hard-to-ignore bargains at book sales
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???
Having bought all of these my next problem is…..
Where can I find room to store them all???? Anyone have some spare shelving I can rent??
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.“
Spotlight on Alison Layland
- Alison Layland is the latest author from Wales to feature in Cwtch Corner.
- She studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University, and after a brief spell as a taxi driver worked for several years as a chartered surveyor before returning to her first love – language. She translates from German, French and Welsh into English. Her published translations include a number of award-winning and best-selling novels.
- Alison started writing when she moved to Wales in 1997. A Welsh language course led the way to creative writing classes. She was Welsh Learner of the Year in 1999. In 2002 she won first place at the National Eisteddfod with a short story written in Welsh.
- She is currently teaching herself Croatian as a by-product of her research for her first novel Someone Else’s Conflict.
- Her latest novel Riverflow was published by Honno in June 2019.
- You can learn more about Alison’s books at www.alayland.uk She is also on Twitter via @AlisonLayland
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin
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.
Women with secrets
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.
Close relationship with nature
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.