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The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths #fictionWales

primrosepathThe Primrose Path is an atmospheric thriller based on the premise that no matter how fast or far you run, you can never escape the past.

At the age of 19, Sarah D’Villez was abducted during a visit to some riding stables and held prisoner for days. She managed to escape though her attacker’s wife was murdered in the course of her flight. For years, Sarah re-lived the anguish of her ordeal and the media attention it generated. The trauma alienated her from her friends and mother and ultimately caused the breakdown of her marriage and separation from her child.  Now in her 30s she learns that John Blundell, her abductor, is about to be released from prison. She has to escape before he, or the press, catch up with her. So she dyes her hair, changes her name to Rachel and moves to a converted barn in rural Wales to start a new life,  telling no-one not even her mother about her whereabouts.

Even in such an isolated location she doesn’t feel completely safe. It’s not only the fear that someone might discover her secret. One of her nearest neighbours is Idris, a creepy, filthy truck driver who keeps turning up on her doorstep un-announced. Rachel is sure Idris is spying on her and is stealing her underwear. She’s afraid of what this brutish man could do to a woman living alone.

Rebecca Griffiths packs a lot into this book with several plot lines that appear unconnected but which gradually converge as the story progresses. We get Rachel’s flight to Wales and the tension created by her mother’s decision to hire a private investigator to track down her daughter. Added to that there is a mystery about the barn in which Rachel now lives. It once belonged to Idris’ family but no-one knows what happened to his young sister who just disappeared one day on a trip to the seaside. And for good measure, there is a serial killer on the loose who is preying on young women.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, Rachel of course is one of the key narrators but we also hear from her mother Jennifer and from Dai, a widower who has reason to loathe Idris. In between we get some chilling first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed, unidentified serial killer who watches for their next victim.

Rebecca Griffiths certainly has a talent for creating some obnoxious characters. Rachel’s mother is a really masterful portrait of an acerbic, cold woman whose armour is pierced when she makes a shocking discovery in her husband’s study. And then there is Idris, a socially isolated, dysfunctional man who doesn’t know the meaning of the term personal hygiene. So repugnant is he that everyone in the community finds it easy to believe he is capable of anything.

Overall, The Primrose Path is a cleverly-plotted novel. I’ve seen several comments from reviewers that it’s overly slow to get going but that wasn’t my reaction. We needed time to get to know the multiple characters and their relationships to each other. Once Rachel is firmly established in Wales the pace picks up  as we learn more about her former life. There are plenty of surprising twists and moments which challenge your assumptions. The clues to the denouement were there all along but I didn’t spot them so the ending was a surprise.  I won’t spoil this for other readers other than to say that its worth keeping in mind as you read The Primrose Path that this is a novel in which virtually everyone has a secret…

I did have a couple of issues with the book. One is that it felt repetitive at times –  we kept getting told for example that Idris’ home is a tip while Rachel’s new home is remote. I know Griffiths wanted to emphasise her vulnerability but I didn’t feel I needed to be hit over the head with that fact quite so much. The biggest issue however was the resolution of the serial killer sub-plot. Griffiths leads her readers down several garden paths about the identity of the killer and, to my delight, completely wrong-footed me ( I hate thrillers where the culprit is too evident.). However her solution felt too much of a cop-out because the culprit was barely present as a character in the novel so we never really understood their motivation for killing women they considered ‘slags’.

Overall however The Primrose Path is a well-structured tale that shows some deft handling of multiple plot lines and levels of tension.  It’s clear why this debut novel by Rebecca Griffiths has earned her many accolades in the UK with predictions that she is on the track to a highly successful career. She’s someone I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for in the future.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths was published by Sphere in 2016. The title is a phrase taken from Hamlet and has come to mean a course of action that seems easy and appropriate but can actually end in calamity.

About the author : Rebecca Griffiths grew up in rural mid-Wales.  She returned to live there after a successful business career in London, Dublin and Scotland. The Primrose Path is her debut novel.

Why I bought this book: I came across this while mooching around the bookshop last year and was drawn to the fact this was by an author from my homeland.

 

The Greatest Novels from Wales?

great-welsh-novelsToday, 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

  1. The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
  2. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
  3. The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
  4. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  5. Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
  6. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  7. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  9. The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
  10. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
  11. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
  12. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  13. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  14. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  15. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
  16. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
  17. Awakening by Stevie Davies
  18. Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard   (translates as One Moonlit Night)
  19. Shifts by Christopher Meredith
  20. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
  21. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
  22. A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
  23. 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.

Further resources

Announcement of The Greatest Welsh Novel

Description of One Moonlit Night by Publishers Weekly

Authors from Wales page on booker.com

Wales Arts Review

 

 

 

 

 

10 Welsh authors for the festive season

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday meme asks us to think ahead to Dec 25 and what books we would recommend for friends, relatives etc. What a great opportunity to promote books by Welsh authors some of whom you will be familiar with but others will be unknown quantities.

  1. Let’s start with one of the biggest names and the one you will certainly have heard of – Dylan Thomas. You may have read his poetry or seen a version of Under Milk Wood but my recommendation given the season is to try get the rather delightful  A Child’s Christmas in Wales
  2. One name even bigger than Thomas is Roald Dahl who was born in Cardiff – this year saw a big splash because its his centenary year.  I have a fondness for my first Dahl book – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  3. Ken Follett was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived there until he was 10 years old. Of his many novels Pillars of the Earth stands out for being the longest (its a trilogy covering five families from war through to the 1980s.). Rather more manageable is The Man from St Petersburg which is set in 1914 as the world prepares for war. This was the first Follett book I read and I can recall being entranced by it….
  4. Sarah Waters: Yes this leading author of Tipping the Velvet is from Wales. All her novels fall into the highly readable category. I made the mistake of buying The Paying Guests (my review is here) as a Christmas gift to my mum last year. I was reading it myself and thought it was pretty good – that was before I got to the rather detailed lesbian love scenes. I’m not sure if she ever read it but she has put it in a bag of books to go to the charity shop.
  5. Cynan Jones  won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction with The Dig, (a novel about a badger baiter, and a grieving farmer). His latest novel Cove which came out this month is rather different – the Guardian described it as “a minimal, occasionally mysterious, man-versus-the-elements fable.”
  6. Jan Morris, a  historian, author and travel writer (though she hates that last description). Read The Matter of Wales for an education into contemporary issues in the country written by someone who loves the country. Her style is lyrical and beautiful. There is a good review of this in the Guardian
  7. Gwyn Thomas. An erudite writer with an acerbic wit who became one of the leading voices at the BBC. Read The Alone to the Alone
  8. Alexander Cordell  was a prolific novelist in the 1950s and 60s – he write around 30 novels including Rape of the Fair CountryHosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth. A good choice for anyone who wants to understand some of the industrial heritage of the country.
  9. Turning to more contemporary authors we have Carys Davies  a writer whom I’m discovered through her success in the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. I seldom read short stories but her winning collection  The Redemption of Galen Pike was superb
  10. Coming right up to date we have Carol Lovekin whose novel Ghost Bird was published just this month. I’ve not yet read it but it comes recommended by Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame) who called it “Charming, quirky, magical“.It was also the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April this year. I;’m hoping someone might buy this for me this December…..

The View from Here: Good reads from Wales

viewfromhere

 

A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go. 

 Let’s meet Booker Talk

My real name is Karen.  I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.

Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?

I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour.  Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.

Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

Bookshop in Laugharne, the village where Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood

They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic  but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.

Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers  like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with  The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).

Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?

The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.

A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf SolentA Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.

Coming more up to date you’ll find  someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.

Q. Why don’t we see more Welsh language fiction available in English? 

Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.

 

 

 

The who’s who guide to world fiction: Review

guide to world fictionWhen I decided a couple of years ago it was time to broaden my reading horizons and seek out more authors outside my usual zone of UK and USA, I didn’t realise how tough it would be to find writers from certain countries. Many blog challenges that seemed promising initially turned out to simply list books set in the country not written by a native. Many websites didn’t distinguish between fiction and non fiction or just gave the author’s name but no indication of their style or genre. If it were not for one website – Complete Review – and a small number of bloggers who are passionate about reading books in translation, I would have struggled.

If only, I mused,  there was a comprehensive reference guide to authors from different parts of the world. My life would be much easier.

A fairy godmother has now granted my wish in the form of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review which operates as an aggregator site for reviews and book news. It pays particular attention to contemporary work in translation and original language from around the world.

Orthofer has now expanded that content to bring us in book format The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a superb resource for English language readers interested in fiction from around the world. The guide is divided into profiles by region and country each of which contains a commentary on literature from that part of the world and a multitude of author names to explore from 1945 to the present day. The Guide could easily just be page after page of lists but Orthofer avoids this with his short but insightful summaries about trends in each country.

How well does he have his finger on the pulse in each of these countries? I used the section on my home country of Wales as a test. Actually I was impressed to find there was  a section on literature from Wales – we’re such a small nation that we usually get overlooked or lumped in with our big neighbour England. Orthofer accurately comments that government support for the Welsh language has led to a resurgence in Welsh language writing. He gives examples of both 20th century and contemporary Welsh language writers and those writing in English (Robin Llewelyn, John Williams for example) but it was odd not to find even a mention of people who I consider to be big names from the past like Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high but I’d love to know what people from some of the countries he includes, think of his selection.

While the country profiles are  a useful gateway into each location, the part of this book I enjoyed reading most was Orthofer’s introduction in which he analyses the current state of literature in translation and why so little of it exists. American and British publishers continue to show reluctance to invest in translated works, he notes. Even the university presses concentrate on very narrow slices of international literature. Despite the presence in the United States of so many foreign authors, most of them are unknown to American readers. When the American houses do go for a work in translation “… too often it is the second-rate works – the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers – that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).”

In Europe, Germany’s support for translated works has led to greater exposure for Scandinavian and eastern European countries while readers in France benefit from the more generous support given to translation in that country.  Orthofer sees two glimmers of brightness however. One is that other countries, most notably India and southern Africa, have made a concerted effort to translate more works from their regional languages. The second is via the determined efforts of some small and nimble publishers determined to raise the profile of great writers from all parts of the world. As Orthofer says early on in his book: “Great literature and great books know no borders.”

End Notes

The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A Orthofer is published by Columbia University Press. Many thanks to the publishers for making this available via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. As an indicator of how much I appreciated this book, I’ve now gone and bought my own copy.

 

 

Suggestions for authors from Wales

St Davids Day 8 Cardiff 2015

St David’s Day parade, Cardiff City Center 2015

Since today is the patron saint’s day for Wales I thought I’d mark the occasion with some insights on authors who hail from my native land. The people I’ve chosen are all people who write in the medium of English rather than the Welsh language. Thats not out of disrespect to the language, but since many of my readers are from overseas, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if I pointed you to Welsh language texts.

DylanThomasThe most famous son of all is of course Dylan Thomas. A bit of a hell raiser was our Dylan; a familiar figure in the bars in Swansea (the city of his birth) and Laugharne, the fishing village where he lived with his wife Caitlin. His poetry is defined by his ingenious use of words, imagery and sound patterns which sometimes makes the meaning hard to discover. My recommendation: don’t worry too much  about the messages behind the words. Just find a recording of Richard Burton reading Thomas’s poems or his play Under Milk Wood, and revel in the sounds.

After Dylan, the other writers from Wales don’t have anywhere near the same reputation beyond our borders.  Many of these names will, I suspect, be ones that you might vaguely have heard of but more likely will be a complete mystery.

Gwyn Thomas:  author and  Tv/radio broadcaster from Barry (near my current home) whose black comedies focused on life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. He’s all but disappeared from the public conscience except amongst the literary elite in Wales. His autobiographical work A Few Selected Exits shows his passage fro the poorest of families in Wales to Oxford and the BBC. I’ve posted a few reviews of his works here: Reading a Welsh legend and here The Alone to the Alone.

Raymond Williams: If you’ve ever studied the work of Charles Dickens there is a chance you will have encountered the name of Raymond Williams who was one of the foremost Marxist academics active in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which examined famous British writers such as Wordsworth and Orwell to argue that culture, as we know it, developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake. His assessment of Dickens challenges Orwell’s contention that Dickens wasn’t a social reformer. Well worth reading is his work The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence which looks at the way historical and social changes affected the development of the novel through the works of eleven writers. He also wrote novels – perhaps the best known is Border Country which is set in the community Williams knew personally,  rural South Wales, close to the border with England,  There are lengthy flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.

Bernice Rubens was the only author from Wales to win the Booker prize. She was actually the first woman to win the prize with her novel The Elected Member.  It was one of the first books I read as part of my Booker Prize project – good in parts but not wonderful was my verdict at the time.

If those options seem a little heavy for you, the following authors may be more to your taste. 

Owen Sheers:  Although Sheers was born in Fiji, I’m classing him as a Welsh author because he spent his formative years here and has kept his close connection with the country not least because much of his work has a connection to Wales (including a role as the first writer in residence of the Welsh Rugby Union(. Sheers began writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1999. He was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets in 2004 but it wasn’t until his first novel Resistance was published in 2008 that he really came to the public’s attention.The novel imagines that the D-day landings have failed and Wales been occupied by the Nazis. it’s been translated into ten languages and was shortlisted for a Best Book Award.

Dannie Abse: a native of Cardiff in 1923, he trained as a doctor but began writing poetry and plays while working in a London hospital. His first novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve,  appeared in 1954, tracing the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the backdrop of unemployment, the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In 2002 his novel  The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas was long listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Ken Follett: author of highly-readable novels such as The Pillars of the Earth, Eye of the Needle and The Man from St Petersburg, was born in Cardiff (capital city of Wales). He worked as a reporter on the same local newspaper that once employed me, the South Wales Echo, though our paths never crossed.

Iris Gower:  a prolific writer of historical romances in the vein of Catherine Cookson. Gower set many of her works in her home city of Swansea and the adjacent coastal area of the Gower Peninsula from which she took her pen name. She was a prolific writer publishing one new novel (and sometimes two) almost every year between 1975 until her death in 2010. Her work doesn’t appeal to me but my mum loves her.

 

Weekend Bookends # 5

A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed.

Literature Prizes

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 🙂

 

The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas

Aloneto the AloneIt would be hard to read Gwyn Thomas’ 1947 novel The Alone to the Alone and not admire his ability to conjure up phrases and sentences that dazzle with the kind of wit that can be biting and savage one moment and warm and endearing in another. This is a novel that displays his trademark prowess with language to the full and in which there is scarcely a page that doesn’t ooze with black comic hyperbole.

And yet this isn’t meant to be a novel purely of entertaining comedy. Thomas crafted it to illuminate the experience of life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Set in a village community he calls simply The Terraces (a reference to the layout of housing in this part of Wales), the novel features the adventures of group known as The Dark Philosophers. They’re four unemployed men who have nothing else to do but to sit on a wall each day to chew the fat. There are few subjects upon which they don’t have an opinion: religion, imperialism, the profit motive, socialism; heredity and the vexed issue of Jonah and the whale are all topics upon which they feel equipped to pontificate. But love? Ah that’s a different matter.

When a plain village girl called Eurona seeks their guidance on how to win the attention of the village idol (otherwise known as Rollo the bus conductor), they’re both dismayed and stumped.

That pricked us for we were proud of the little stocks of wisdom that life had battered into us with its bare knuckles. …. we were prophets of a sort whenever the discussion was about things of which experience and book reading had taught us much, particularly in discussions about the Slump. We were the oldest sons so to speak of the Slump…

Even so, they rally around when Eurona gets a job as a domestic help outside of The Terraces and needs new clothes “because wealthy folk who hire other folk to do their dirty work are kept so busy organising a cleaner world that they have no time for anything other than first impressions.”

Terraced housing typical of the Welsh valleys

Terraced housing typical of the Welsh valleys

Their attempts to help and to put her life back on track lead invariably to confusion and some magnificent set pieces including one when these philosophical giants end up plastering every conceivable wall and lamppost with advertising posters for a grocer with aspirations to build a whole chain of stores throughout the valleys. As they rest in the midst of their labours one afternoon  a purplish, glowing path materialises around the corner: Eurona’s father proudly parading in a new suit and bowler hat many sizes too big.

It must, without any need for tape measure or question, have been the biggest bowler in the Terraces. … His ears appeared to be closing in on him for they were large and made larger by the fact that when Morris was baffled beyond endurance, he had two of his children take one ear apiece and pull to make room with his skull even for the small simple thoughts that ached to have done with him as they tripped headlong in the narrow alleys of his prickly awareness. To fix the bowler at a point above his eyes he had stuffed several sheets of newspaper into it. This stuffing had been done in haste and clumsily. One strand with a legible headline about the birthrate came down over his brow as if to provide him with some quiet reading in the intervals of being admired and fainting from the strain of holding up on so slight a head a hat of such weight and size.

Such moments of humour offset the depth of Thomas’ satirical take on the limits of human aspiration in a society so deeply deprived that beauty itself has been suffocated. For as one of Thomas’ philosophers comments: ….”when men consent to endure for too long the sadness of poverty and decline, beauty sees no point in staying, bows its head and goes.”

End notes

Gwyn Thomas was himself a native of the kind of valleys community featured in The Alone to the Alone. Born the youngest of 12 children to a coalminer, he managed to escape a life underground as a coal miner with the aid of a scholarship to study Spanish at Oxford University. Struggling to establish himself as a writer in the 1930s, he began teaching and lecturing. Success did not come until the early 1950s after which time he became a regular chat show participant and broadcaster.

A secret literary giant

Who is the greatest writer to have emerged from Wales in the last 100 years?

For those of you who fell asleep during school geography lessons, it might be helpful if I first explained where you will find Wales on the map. It’s a small country and often — mistakenly — labelled as England. But make that error on the day when England and Wales meet on the rugby field and you could find yourself in deep trouble with the thousands of fervent Welshmen and women in the stands. There is good reason why the national colour is red and our national symbol is the fire-breathing dragon — both capture the essence of our passionate nature.

So here is where you will find Wales. It’s the bit to the left and as you can see quite distinct from England.

UK map

 

Now to my question: who is Wales’ most esteemed writer? If I were to ask the question even within Wales, the answer invariably would be Dylan Thomas, that hell-raising man with the golden syrup tongue who authored  the play for voices Under Milk Wood and a myriad of intensely lyrical poems in between downing pints of beer at his local pub. Even if you have never read anything by him, there is more than a fair chance you will recognise some lines of his:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or the opening lines spoken by the narrator of Under Milk Wood

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

You can expect to hear much more about this  “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” over the next months as the country celebrates the centenary of his birth.

gwyn thomasDespite his fame (more like notoriety) and undoubted skill, he was never a commercial success to anything like the same extent as another writer whose centenary is actually this year: Gwyn Thomas.

You will most likely never have hear of him. And yet during his life time he was esteemed by writers like William Faulkner and his novels sold a phenomenal number of copies in North America.

He wrote about the community he knew well, the coal-mining valleys of South Wales where he grew up as the twelfth child of a coal miner and where he experienced both the desperate poverty of the area and the heartache of his mother’s death when he was five years old. There were typically only two choices for boys in that area in the 1940s — if you were bright, you might just get to train as a teacher but if not, you followed your dad down the mines as soon as you were 14 and spent your days in the dark, breathing in coal dust. Thomas was one of the lucky ones who escaped through a scholarship to Oxford university.

But he never forgot the experience of his youth which sowed the seeds of his socialist beliefs and his complete disregard for authority. Both came through in novels like All Things Betray Thee, his autobiography A Few Selected Exits and his television and radio broadcasts in which he displayed a virtuoso talent for sophisticated humour mingled with satire and a deep appreciation of the human effect of  industrial change.

If you’ve never read him before now, 2015 could be the time to begin.

 

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