Many authors can go through their entire career without a single award or literary prize to their name which makes the recent success of Welsh author Alys Conran even more extraordinary. At the 2017 Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this month she swept the board with three prizes for her debut novel Pigeon. It’s a remarkable achievement considering she was in competition with Cynan Jones, an author of international standing, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel Cove was also shortlisted.
Pigeon was selected unanimously for the overall Book of the Year title because it lingered in their minds long after the judges had finished reading it said judging panel chairman Tyler Keevil. As a coming of age story littered with domestic violence, broken homes and mental illness it certainly has an emotional pull. Conran takes us on a journey through the memories of two children, Iola Williams and her closest (indeed her only) friend Pigeon, who live in a Welsh town surrounded by slate quarries. In the opening scene the pair chase an ice cream van and then debate at length their choice of flavour. It lulls us into thinking this is a tale filled with idyllic days of innocent fun but it doesn’t take long to find this is a novel that debunks all those myths about childhood.
Both children live in broken homes. Iola’s dad has disappeared, her mother and her beloved Nain (grandmother) are dead, leaving the girl in the care of her hippy elder sister. Pigeon, a sallow-faced skinny boy with shoulders as ‘delicate as egg shells’ lives in the garden shed of the crooked house he shared with his seamstress mother until he was ousted from his bedroom when stepfather Adrian and his daughter moved in. Pigeon is regularly beaten by this man (Pigeon refers to him only as as Him or H) and has to watch his mother lose all her spirit and independence through Adrian’s bullying.
To channel his energy and anger he plays truant from school, disrupts Sunday School meetings and makes up adventures and stories about bad people. Iola doesn’t fully believe in Pigeon’s fantasy world but she still goes along with his five-stage plan to prove Gwyn, the ice cream seller, is up to no good and may even be a murderer. The plan goes disastrously wrong; the first of two calamities that results in a forced separation of the friends and threatens to sever their relationship. As they emerge from childhood into early adulthood they have a chance to start afresh but only if one of them can lay to rest their feelings of guilt from the past.
The path to redemption for Pigeon comes through his encounters with Elfyn, a father figure under whose guiding hand Pigeon learns to build dry stone walls and rediscover a willingness to speak his native language. Throughout his life Pigeon has been fascinated by words, collecting them and savouring their novelty ‘with their strange textures: clay, metal, soap textures, and the strange tastes of the words as he says them into the cold air.’ Sent to a young offenders institution in England he has no choice but to learn English though this means he has to suppress part of his self.
But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deep.
Words and language are significant in more than one sense with Pigeon. This is the first novel to be simultaneously published in both English and Welsh. The text also blends both languages: the children’s Welsh dialogue is often rendered directly, without translation. Though this could be daunting for some readers, particularly when confronted by words that appear to have no vowels, it doesn’t spoil the experience of reading the novel because as this example shows, the context makes the meaning understandable.
‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.
The sniffing quietens.
‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.
Although Pigeon is the eponymous hero he doesn’t get to tell his own story. The narrative voice belongs principally to Iola , an intelligent and observant girl who relates their escapades and her own sense of loneliness with unflinching honesty. What we learn about Pigeon comes from Iola or a third person narrator, an approach that perfectly reflects the parallel Conran draws between this boy and the bird whose name he shares. Pigeons – as anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island will know – are generally considered unintelligent and dull but Conran has her narrator remind us, they’re also capable of heroic feats, carrying messages long distance in times of war. As the boy Pigeon grows into manhood he too finds the courage to take control of his life.
Pigeon is a memorable novel with characters that tug at the heartstrings. It has a few flaws – the backstory of Gwyn’s Italian mother Mrs Gelataio (you can join me in groaning over that name) and her determination to find her son a wife for example – jarred with its over reliance on the comedy of her Anglo-Italian lingo and Conran overdid the theme of story-telling. But it’s still a very strong first novel and I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on what she does next.
She does have another novel in the pipeline but she was keeping the details close to her chest when I caught up with her after the awards ceremony. All she would say is that it’s about a friendship and is set in a British seaside resort. “Not in Wales,” she emphasises. But after a few seconds, adds: “ That could change.” No date is set yet for to completion and she won’t be drawn on that so we just have to hope it doesn’t take as long as the seven years of gestation with Pigeon. She doesn’t write with a plan in mind, preferring to let the work grow organically. Pigeon grew from a single image of children chasing the ice cream van.
“Working on the novel was a long journey but it taught me a lot about how to be an author,.” she reflected. She new she wanted it to be a hybrid book, not a pure coming -of-age tale, and one that was very much a book from Wales that blended English and Welsh languages. It was her publisher’s idea however to produce simultaneous translated versions. As a fluent Welsh speaker Alys Conran could have done the translation herself but chose not to do. “I couldn’t have done a translation so effectively it would have even writing another book and I really didn’t want to write a second Pigeon.”
Invariably the question arises about the lack of prominence of writers from Wales on the world stage. “Look at the other writers in the shortlist for these awards, Cynan Jones and Jo Mazelis do have an international following” counters Alys. She does accept that there are challenges in getting the same level of attention for fiction from Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve heard people make negative comments about books set in Wales, that they don’t have enough scope. But that seems very unfair – Steinbeck and Faulkner set their work firmly in one location yet we don’t hear comments about lack of scope so why should this apply to Wales?”
While her Welsh identity is important to Alys Conran, equally critical is that she doesn’t view it as a constraint. “Identity shouldn’t be a straight jacket and authors shouldn’t view it as if it stops them writing about broader issues. I prefer to see it as a privileged point of view through which we can look at the world.”
About the book: Pigeon is published by Ceredigion-based publishers, Parthian.
About the author: Alys Conran was born in North Wales, studied literature at Edinburgh and then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in. Relative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. Her fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. At the 2017 Literature Wales Awards she topped the public vote for the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and then went on to pick up the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award and the overall Book of the Year award for her debut novel Pigeon.
This time last year I was nervously awaiting my first radiotherapy session, with all the dire warnings of the side effects ringing in my ears. Fortunately apart from tiredness brought on by having to do the trek to the hospital every day and hang around until the staff judged I’d drunk enough liquid, I suffered no ill effects. Twelve months on, with four rounds of surgery and a broken arm bone dealt with, I’m back in the gym and have started up a little walking group in my village. We had 80 people show interest initially but they’ve gradually fallen by the wayside as the weather has become more fickle and it gets darker earlier every week. We have a core group now that is determined to keep going even if some days we will have to wear head torches….
Even more exciting is that we have a holiday booked. First one in two years. Hooray. So in about 10 days I’ll be heading for South Africa in search of some much needed sunshine, relaxation, good food and of course the odd glass of wine. I’ve already started fretting about what books I’ll take — honestly this is far more stressful than deciding what clothes/shoes etc I should pack. I’m not alone it seems — Tom who blogs at Hogglestock.com solved his problem by counting the number of pages in each book on his list of possibles, weighing them and then using some formula to work out what would give him the best return. Now that’s dedication! I can’t be doing with that amount of effort myself. I’m planning on taking just three ‘real’ books, all of which I would be happy to leave behind when I’m done. I’ll have my e reader as well and I may even find my way to a local bookshop or two in search of some African authors.
But that’s all in the future. This post is meant to capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to November 1, 2017.
Right after finishing my 44th Booker Prize winner —Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (reviewed here) — I picked up another Booker winner that has greatly divided opinion over the years. How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman won the prize in 1994. It’s told in a stream of consciousness style using what can be called ‘fruity’ Glaswegian language. The high expletive count and the strong working voice and vocabulary meant it was given a less than rapturous reception when it was published. One columnist accused Kelman of “literary vandalism” and little more than the transcript of a rambling, drunk. It does ramble admittedly but it’s not surprising since the protagonist is an ex-con by the name of Sammy who wakes in an alleyway one Sunday morning to find he is wearing another man’s shoes. He tries to piece together the details of a two-day drinking binge. After getting into a scrap with some plain clothes police officers and taken into custody he recovers to find he is completely blind. That’s as far as I’ve got – not the most cheery of subjects is it? It’s not difficult to read. In fact I was surprised to find how few pages it took before I was able to latch on to the rhythm and flow of Sammy’s voice.
This is a novel best read in small chunks it seems so as a contrast I’ve been reading Carole Lovekin’s recently published Snow Sisters. It will be the first of her books that I’ve read and I chose it as part of my interest in promoting authors and publishers from Wales. I don’t go a bundle on ghostly fiction so the plot device of a voice from the past that begins to haunt two sisters in their home in Wales doesn’t interest me that as much as the relationship between the sisters and with their distracted artist mother. The publishers Honno have chosen a stunning image for the cover by the way.
Thinking of reading next…
I have some other books by Welsh authors that I was hoping to read before November 11th when the Wales Book of the Year prize is announced. Unfortunately the plan went awry because I got distracted by the #1968club project recently for which I read Chocky by John Wyndham (see the review here) and Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs. So it’s unlikely I’ll read all three shortlisted fiction titles. I’ll probably start with Cove by Cynan Jones who is the best known name to make it to the shortlist. It’s his fifth novel.
The state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. A splurge last month has done a bit of damage but not too bad since the trend is still downward overall — I’m now at 288. I just have to watch out for the sale in the library that begins tomorrow.
One of the plus sides of autumn is that the broadcasters always come out with their new productions and series. Sadly the Great British Bake Off has now finished for another year. Maybe it’s just as well because watching it leaves me feeling very inadequate when I compare the contestants’ creations to my own feeble efforts. Talking of inadequacy, have any of you been watching the latest run of The Apprentice? The quality of contestants has been going downhill steadily for a few years now but I think they’ve reached rock bottom with this lot. They’re absolutely useless and I wouldn’t let them near a market stall let alone a business.
Recently I watched Gunpowder which was an account of the true-life plot by disaffected Catholics in the seventeenth century to bring down the King that we Brits mark every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires. It’s quite a brutal, no holds barred treatment. The first thirty minutes brought us that most gruesome form of execution where the guilty party ( a young priest) was hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Before that we saw a less common form of death, called Peine forte et dure (translated as “hard and forceful punishment”), where the accused is subjected to heavy weights placed on their chest, effectively crushing them to death. The sofa cushions came in handy more than once I confess. Sadly the main issue with the series wasn’t the level of violence (though thats been a source of much criticism) but the fact that the conspirators began to look more like catwalk models with judicious splodges of mud for effect, than desperados. Roll on the next series of Netflix’s superb The Queen, for historical accuracy and superb acting.
And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming to you from the sunny climes of Cape Town. Until then, happy reading everyone.
Progress of a kind has been made on the health front. Two weeks after surgery to repair all the breaks in my upper humerus I can now take the arm out of the sling. I’m still pretty much confined to doing daily activities single-handed but at least I can now begin physiotherapy. It’s going to be slow progress I fear because I have little range of movement at the moment. Imagine a penguin walking and you have the image of how much I can move the damaged arm. Four weeks from now I hope I can at least drive.
Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on September 1, 2017?
I’m currently reading another Booker Prize winner – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. This is book number 43 from the list of 50 titles in my Booker Prize project. It’s a fictionalised autobiography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, a historical figure about whom I know very little. Carey imagines Kelly writing a journal to the daughter he would never meet, in which he traces his life as the offspring of a poor family of Irish origin and how his many encounters with the law. The style is distinctively vernacular with little punctuation or grammar, emulating the pattern found in the Jerilderie Letter, a letter dictated by Kelly to one of his gang members in 1879. I thought that might make it hard to read but not a bit of it. This is a book so mesmerizing that after a few pages you cease to be concerned with the mode of telling and just get swept along with the story.
I’d hoped to finish this before #20booksofsummer2017 comes to an end (September 3) but I don’t think I’ll make it. Not to worry, I will still have read 11 by then which is one better than 2016.
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. I’m now down to 274. I was remarkably restrained with purchases in August -just one bought. A collection of short stories by Thomas Morris called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. I don’t tend to read many short story collection but this one caught my eye because Morris happens to have been born in the town of Caerphilly ( about 5 miles from where I grew up ) and all 10 stories in this book are based in the town. It won the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award within the Wales Book of the Year award in 2016. So I get to ride a little wave of nostalgia and support a local author at the same time.
Thinking of reading next…
I think I’m going to avoid making too many plans for September. It was fun to do the #20booksofsummer reading but I feel more like reading as the mood takes me for the next few weeks. I know there will be a Booker Prize winner in the mix – I will have just six remaining to read once I’ve finished with Mr Ned Kelly and his exploits but whether it’s How Late It Was, How Late or Vernon God Little or even A Brief History of Seven Killings I tackle next I will decide on the day. I might read Owen Shears’ I Saw a Man which I collected from the library today. I’ve read only one of his novels until now (Resistance) and wasn’t all that enamoured with it but this one has had very strong reviews. Oh and did I mention he is Welsh? Another good reason to get to know him better.
Watching: Now The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK has come to an end I am somewhat bereft. I have no interest in Game of Thrones (sorry to the millions of its fans), was bored by Poldark and cannot get the Channel 4 catchup service to let me watch The Good Fight, the spin off to The Good Wife. I’m hoping that the end of summer means there could be a few good series coming soon. Until then I’m relying on some old favourites like Inspector Morse (I’ve seen them so many times I can practically recite the lines but still find myself confused by a few of the plots.)
And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed.
I’ve been so busy keeping an eye on the various bookish prizes announced recently that I completely forgot the awards in my own country would be revealed any day now.
The shortlist for the Wales Book of the Year Award was in fact announced only recently I’ve discovered so fortunately I’m not that far behind with the news. The winners will be announced in July.
This is a set of awards for work in the Welsh language or written in the English language by someone born or resident in Wales.
There are three titles in the fiction short list, none of them I am embarrassed to admit that I have read.
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley. Hadley lives in Wales and has already had some collections of short stories published.
The Drive by Tyler Keevil. Keevil is actually Canadian by birth but has lived and worked for a theatre in education group in Wales for many years
The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rhydderch. Rydderch’s surname leaves no doubt about her claim to Welsh identity. The Rice Paper Diaries is her debut novel. This is the finalist I would most enjoy reading I suspect. It focuses on a British family taken prisoner by the Japanese in Hong Kong in the second world war. We see their lives before internment, life in the camp and then the return to Britain after the war.
Down memory lane
Way back in my youth I developed a passion for historical fiction. My favourite was Jean Plaidy but I quickly exhausted all her books. I flirted with Georgette Heyer for a while but quickly tired of her Regency period romances. Life moved on and my interests changed and I forgot about historical fiction for years – and then one day after finishing my last university finals exam when I really wanted something to read that was not screaming English Literature at me, I came across a novel by Mary Stewart. It was The Crystal Cave, the first in a trilogy set in Arthurian times. I read it that afternoon and went back for the second, The Hollow Hills. A couple of days later I was deep into the final novel, The Last Enchantment. In all three novels she vividly captured the Celtic love of mythology and nature as she relayed the legend of Arthur through the eyes of a Welsh merlin.
It’s decades now since I last read a Mary Stewart novel but I was reminded of that delicious moment from my youth this morning when I read that she had died at the ripe age of 97. Although she had a long and successful career (her last novel was published in 1995) somehow she never seemed to achieve the popularity of Plaidy. Such a shame because as the obituary pointed out, she was meticulous in her research and fiercely defended her work against those who questioned its authenticity.
Now here’s my dilemma. Do I reread part (or maybe all) that trilogy for old time’s sake? I’m nervous that it might not live up to my recollection and then a wonderful memory would be spoiled. Maybe it’s safer to procrastinate 🙂