Category Archives: Writing Wales
There is one phrase guaranteed to make me decide not to buy a novel. Publishers love it and must believe it works as way to hook in readers because it appears time and time again in back cover blurbs. I know it must be hard to come up with a different form of words for every book when there are so many being published but I am tired of seeing “Their lives were changed forever…” (or a variation along those lines). So what was I doing reading a novel which begins:
The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty – stepped through their back door.
The short answer was that I ordered I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers from the library without paying much attention to the front cover where this sentence appears or looking inside the book so I didn’t realise this was how it would begin. The longer answer is that Owen Sheers is a poet, playwright and author from Wales and I like to do my bit to support literature from my native land. He’s won multiple awards including Welsh Book of the Year 2005 for The Dust Diaries, his first prose work (it’s a non-fictional narrative set in Zimbabwe). I feel guilty that I’ve read only one of his novels to date.
At first I was engrossed by I Saw A Man which sees Michael Turner, a best-selling author move from rural Wales to a very dull apartment in London. Michael is “reticent with grief” for his wife, Caroline, a television journalist killed in a drone strike while making a documentary about Pakistani jihadists. Michael slowly begins to heal under the influence of his next door neighbours: Josh Nelson, a Lehman Brothers banker, his wife Caroline and their two young daughters. Soon he is sharing family meals and helping the children with their homework, But one day, Michael finds the door to the Nelson house unlocked and the house deserted. Puzzled and fearful about what he might find he ventures inside.
Sheers skillfully notches up the tension of Michael’s inch by inch progress through the house, using flashbacks into Michael’s life to delay the moment of revelation about the catastrophic events. We’re also taken thousands of miles away to the Nevada desert where, deep in a covert military base, a United States Army major launches a drone that kills Caroline. It’s not until the book is over the half way mark that we get to discover what has happened to the Nelson family. The rest of the book deals essentially with the fall out from that revelation and the web of secrecy and guilt in which Michael becomes complicit.
There was much to enjoy and admire in I Saw A Man. The suspense of the first half meant I was continually scrolling through all the possibilities about the nature of the catastrophe that was foreshadowed on page one. Afar reading the section about American attacks against terrorists, I began speculating the Nelsons were undercover agents or even members of a terrorist network. Later on, there were hints of a more ethereal explanation for the Nelsons’ disappearance, at several points for example Michael thinks he sees the ghost of his wife.
He did not believe in ghosts. In all the months since her death never once had he thought Caroline was still with him. Her absence had been the most certain thing he’d ever known. But she had been. Just now. He’d felt her with absolute experience. And he still could. It was fading, the resonance cooling but it was there, as if he was slowly waking backwards from a fire, retreating into a cold night.
Sheers is clearly a talented writer. His prose moves easily and authoritatively from the minutiae of daily domestic life in an upmarket London suburb on the edge of Hampstead Heath to the tension of an international anti-terrorist attack. Imagery abounds here: American SUVs are driven by small women whose “painted nails clutch the steering wheels like the feet of caged birds”. Daniel, the pilot whose missile killed Caroline watches a thermal imaging screen hover over a body killed by his drone, noting “the puddle of human heat grow, like the slow bubble of a lava lamp … From orange to yellow, to green, until leaking from his limbs to his core, his body cooled to blue, eventually melting into the colour of the ground, the dust.”
The novel’s real strengths, however, lies in its study of guilt and the lies we tell ourselves about where our responsibility begins and ends.. Daniel, the pilot, is deeply traumatised by the effect of his missions. Though he consols himself that they have helped save thousands of American lives, he constantly replays the moments when his target hones in on innocent victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He resolves to track down Caroline’s husband and tell him what happened.
Not because he should, but because he had to. Because he knew it was the only way he would ever be able to go on. He was tired of being unseen. Of being dislocated from his action. … He wanted to own his life and he knew that meant owning all of it.
Daniel’s desire for openness contrasts with the responses of the two other principal males in the novel, Michael and Josh. Michael’s survival depends on his ability to dissemble – ironic given that he made his name as a writer of a book about the hidden world of two drug dealers in New York. Josh too has a secret which makes him partly responsible for what happened on that summer day. It’s a secret he would prefer neither police nor wife ever discover.
This was very much a novel very much of two halves. Once we learned the nature of the catastrophe the tension petered out substantially and the remainder of the novel was largely concerned with whether the lies created in the aftermath of that afternoon in June would be unravelled and if so, by whom. Sheers once again keeps us guessing while charting Michael’s inner turmoil but the final resolution still felt rather rushed. The book asks some searching questions about modern day warfare – there is one passage where Daniel reflects on how the rise of unmanned aerial pilots meant the next generation would go into missions without any experiene of real on-the-ground combat, guiding missiles remotely with joysticks modelled on those used in Sony Playstations.
Without knowing it under the eyes of their parents and siblings, America would train her future pilots in bedrooms and living rooms across the country. They would fight a sif the world was a free-fire zone, cocooned within the hum of servers and computers…
A future where people can launch and guide missions to kill as if they were playing a virtual reality game. Now I find that a chilling prospect.
About the Book: I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers was published in 2015 by Faber and Faber. It is his fourth novel. My copy was borrowed from my local library.
About the Author: Owen Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 though brought up and educated in South Wales. His first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was published by Seren in 2000 and shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and the Forward Prize for ‘Best First Collection’. His debut prose work, The Dust Diaries, was published by Faber in 2004. In 2012 Owen became the first poet to work with a rugby team when he became Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. He is currently Professor in Creativity at Swansea University.
Why I read this Book: This is part of my endeavour to read more fiction by authors from my native country of Wales. Reviews and other posts about writers and literature from Wales can be found on the Literature from Wales page.
Last week I posted my review of Larkinland, a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin. In this Q&A Jonathan reveals the inspiration for his book and what he really thinks of the city.
Q. What was the inspiration for writing Larkinland?
Over the past few years, I’ve been called increasingly to Hull. Not able to drive a motor car, I have the privilege of travelling to the city by train. It’s one of Europe’s finest journeys, with distant cathedral-like towers of power stations giving way to fields and flat lands, and then the great river up which the Vikings sailed. Add to this a copy of Larkin’s poetry with which I always travel to Hull, and you’ll see how I came to fall in love with both poet and place. The train is always the best place to really get to know Larkin. Just imagine he’s sitting with you. Of course, he’d be trying not to let you catch his eye.
Q. The novel is described as a mix of mystery and romance yet there is also a strong thread of humour. Did you set out with this blend in mind or did it evolve during the writing process?
Life is all of those things; they invited themselves!
Q. What was more important to you when writing Larkinland – the plot, the character or the setting?
Everything, in equal measure. What people don’t understand is that without Hull, Larkin becomes not much more than a skilled miniaturist. Hull is his muse.
Q. What was the most difficult aspect of the book to write?
It’s the easiest book I’ve ever written.
Q. The book is described as “A fictionalisation of Philip Larkin’s poetic world” How much of your central character is fiction?
Hard to say. A lot of the character is his poetic persona, I don’t know much of his biog details so very little of it is strictly autobiographical.
Q. Fictional works created around real people always seem to generate questions about ethics. Given that your central character bears such a strong resemblance to Philip Larkin, were you conscious of the risk of misrepresenting someone once called the nation’s favourite poet?
I think his shoulders are broad enough to carry more than my little capuchin monkey.
Q. Did you suffer any pangs of conscience about portraying Hull in a negative light just as it is celebrating its reincarnation as a capital of culture?
In my writing I have always loved places on the edge. In fact these are the only places I like. Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Hull, Zimbabwe. So hopefully my love for Hull will come out. What might seem like an unflattering light may well be the opposite.
Q. How do you view Hull personally – liminal beauty or beached mudflats?
I love it. After all, it’s a place with two rugby league teams. I concur with Larkin’s poetry, in which the place becomes a kind of many towered Byzantium.
Q. You conjure up a vivid portrayal of the boarding house run by Miss Glendenning and her rituals. Did this come from personal experience of such establishments in your younger days?
I had friends living in horrible bedsits, and I lived in my fair share of communal houses, but never a lodgings like this.
Q. Do you have a favourite passage in the book that you’d like to share?
Something like, ‘a dog followed him home, until a thrown stone persuaded it bloody well not to.’ I must emphasise that the stone did not hit the dog.
Q. What books are currently on your bedside table?
I am reading the poetry of Ann Ahkmatova. We were on holiday in Lindisfarne last week and we all wrote a poem in a different style. I have since been taken over by Anna Ahkmatova. I came up with the following lines:
heavy as a thrown brick
I carry Anna Ahkmatova
to read by the shore in the hare’s-foot clover.
Of course, after lines like that, the Russian poet would have come up with a devastating image.
About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales.
I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?
Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.
This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.
Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:
The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.
His second expedition is little better:
Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.
But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:
… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?
At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.
About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales
About the author: Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels, including The SeasonTicket, Give Us This Day and Mr McCool. He is a winner of the Betty Trask Prize and The JB Priestley Award. He writes the Times Nature Notebook, and a nature column in The Tablet.
Why I read this book: This is part of my endeavour to showcase writers and publishers from my home country of Wales. I had just watched a BBC documentary about Larkin so was intrigued whether Larkinland would evoke the landscape in which Larkin had spent his prime years as a poet. Thanks go to Seren for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Yesterday I posted my review of Anglesey Blue, the first in a series of detective novels by the Welsh-born author Dylan H Jones. The novel is set on the island of Anglesey (known as Ynys Môn in the Welsh language) in North Wale. It’s a place very close to Dylan’s heart – it’s where he was born, where he spent many of his formative years and where many of his immediate family members still live. In his debut novel, he introduces his lead character Detective Inspector Tudor Manx who has returned to the island after a gap of some thirty years. In this Q&A Dylan shares his plans for future books in the series and how he used his local knowledge to depict his chosen setting.
Q. You’ve described Anglesey Blue as the first in a series of crime novels featuring DI Manx. Did you always envisage this as a series?
Most definitely. I compare it to people’s attitude to films and TV these days. Personally, I’m seeing a shift away from the two hour cinema spectacular towards these incredibly well written, deep and character-driven TV shows. I think people crave that character development you get from a series. That’s how I felt about Manx. His story is just beginning, he has some real demons he needs to face, some real issues he needs to deal with and he needs to do all of this while solving some pretty gruesome crimes.
I’m not sure how many books will be in the series, but I’m elbow deep into book two right now, which sees Manx confronting even more demons, wrestling with his own feelings of guilt and questioning the choices he made that landed him back on the island. One thing I will say, without it being a spoiler, is that I want the first four books to be set in different seasons. The first was set in Winter, the second will be set in Spring, the third and fourth in Summer and Autumn respectively. I’m plotting it out this way because I think the Island of Anglesey changes with each season: the vibe in the summer, where the island is thick with tourists, is very different to the bleakness of the winter months—perfect fodder for a crime fiction author.
Q. It’s common now in crime fiction for the detective/investigator to have a troubled past. Were you conscious when you were writing Anglesey Blue that you were treading familiar ground – how did you avoid the cliches?
Thank you for mentioning that I did avoid the cliches! It’s always a knife-edge balancing act between rolling out the expected cliches and finding a fresh approach to your writing, especially in crime fiction. I think readers expect and want some familiarity with how an investigation plays out; the police craftwork etc, but also they want a fresh angle on all that. With Manx’s past, I wanted it not just to be troubled, but traumatic. The disappearance of this sister, Miriam, thirty years ago is a guilt that he carries with him, but also he’s haunted by the events that took place in London that precipitated his move back to the island. Add these to the fact that he’s now living somewhere he swore never to return to, I think adds more light and shade to his backstory.
Q. The novel clearly reflects your personal knowledge not just of the geography and landscape of Anglesey but of local attitudes. Were you able to rely completely on personal knowledge or did you need to make some additional research visits?
Looking back, much of it was already there, it just needed mining. I do still visit, at least once a year. All my immediate family still live there, as do my cousins. Speaking with them, going out on the town with them and their friends and immersing myself back in the culture helps a lot- I get an idea of what some of the issues are, what matters to them and reflect that as best I can in a dramatic way. My parents are also petty active in the local community, so I get those downloads on a weekly basis!
Q. There’s a joke running through the novel about the difficulties (impossibilities!) of pronouncing certain place names and expressions in Welsh. Was that a way to broaden the appeal of the novel beyond a Welsh readership?
In a way, yes. But, I’m also presenting Anglesey through the eyes of Manx. He’s been away from the island for 30 years and his Welsh is as rusty as mine! The reader comes along for the ride, and if we can throw out a few good jokes here and there and still get over the fact that Welsh is a thriving, working language on the island, then I’d say I’ve done my job. Also, Anglesey is home to a whole community of English people who moved there for the beauty and tranquility, many of become passionate about learning Welsh, others don’t share that passion, it’s that mix that makes it interesting and of course a rich seam of comedy at times.
Q. People who know the island of Anglesey think of it as a place of stunning coastlines and moody interiors. You present a darker side however – showing it as a place a little the worse for wear and suffering from economic collapse. How have people in Anglesey reacted to that portrayal of their communities?
These are all very interesting observations, however, I don’t necessarily agree with you. I think Anglesey has a dual personality. There’s the tourist- friendly Anglesey with the rash of refurbished pubs, gourmet restaurants, Blue Flag beaches and the like, but there’s also the flip side to that, especially near the port of Holyhead where there are some real challenges of poverty and crime.
I’m in constant contact with some incredibly helpful officers in the North Wales Constabulary who not only help with me with the police procedural aspects, but also paint a dark picture of the very real crimes they’re challenged with.
At the end of the day, the last thing I wanted to do was present a glossy, travel brochure promotion for Anglesey- that would have been a worse injustice to the island. Every place has its dark side: that’s what intrigues me, not only about places but also people.
My readers from Anglesey have been incredibly supportive in their reviews. One or two readers have complained about the profanity, but again, it’s real life. Some of the characters I portray are criminals, petty or otherwise, and I have very little control of what comes out of their mouths.(Ok, maybe a little, but I’m not big on censorship unless it feels forced or doesn’t serve the story!)
|Want to know more about Welsh writers ?
Dylan Thomas may be Wales’ best-known literary export but he forms part of a long tradition of excellence in literature demonstrated by people from this Celtic nation. Some of these writers you may not have even realised are from Wales – people like Sarah Walters and Roald Dahl. Broaden your reading horizons by taking a look at some of the authors I’ve highlighted on my Literature from Wales page.
Today, March 1, marks St David’s Day in Wales, the date when people of Welsh origin celebrate the life of our patron saint, St David, and Welsh culture in general. Today you can expect to see many people walking around with a daffodil or leek (both national emblems) pinned to their clothes. Schools often mark the event with an assembly during which the children sing traditional Welsh songs though the custom of wearing the traditional costume seems largely to be dying out.
I thought I would mark the occasion by taking a look at a question which is doing the rounds among the literary circle here. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?. Not an easy question to answer – probably as difficult as defining The Great American Novel. But they’ve persisted, asking contributors for their recommendations and publishing articles on what are considered to be the finest literary works in the history of wales.
Below is the list of nominations – the links point to an essay on the Wales Arts Review. Of these titles the most famous name is that of Roald Dahl though probably Fantastic Mr Fox wouldn’t be considered his most outstanding work. I’ve read just two of these novels: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which I thought was stunning and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis which I read as part of my Booker Prize project and enjoyed in part. I’ve heard of some of the other writers even if I’ve not experienced their works personally – people like Diana Wynne Jones, Emyr Humphries and Lewis Jones. But others are complete mysteries. I’ll explore some of these as part of my plan to read more literature from my home country – you can see some of what I’ve read to date over on my Authors from Wales page.
Greatest Welsh Novel Contenders
- The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
- Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
- The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
- On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
- Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
- Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
- Gold by Dan Rhodes
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
- The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
- The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
- So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
- The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
- Downriver by Iain Sinclair
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
- The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
- In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
- Awakening by Stevie Davies
- Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard (translates as One Moonlit Night)
- Shifts by Christopher Meredith
- Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
- Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
- A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The winner, chosen by a panel of literary experts and authors and a public poll, was Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard – the only Welsh language novel to be nominated. Published in 1961, One Moonlit Night is the story of a young man’s education and growth to adult hood in the slate mining area of north west Wales – Caradog Prichard’s home territory. Announcing the result of the poll, one of the panel members compared the novel to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its use of magical realism.
Authors from Wales page on booker.com