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An Unforgettable Tale: One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard

One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard

Poverty, sickness and hard labour stalk a Welsh village community in Caradog Prichard’s award-winning novel One Moonlit Night. This is the reality of life in a small slate quarrying community as seen through the eyes of a young boy. But though there is also sadness and tragedy, there is also joy; the first sight of the sea; an entire community united in song and a raucous football match.

One Moonlit Night was written as a portrayal of a way of life known intimately by Carodog Prichard. North Wales is where he was born and lived most of his life with his widowed mother, just as his narrator does.

I think that’s why the book has such a strong sense of the child’s love for the village and its inhabitants. Pritchard’s narrator knows every inhabitant and how they are related. He knows too every inch of his village; each street and lane being but a playground for him and his best friends Huw and Moi.

They’re full of curiosity these boys; forever asking questions and wanting to stay out late so they don’t miss anything exciting. They’re also an adventurous trio, exploring the surrounding hills and lakes and always on the look out for fun even if it’s just picking wild berries on the mountainside or passing on the latest gossip.

Shadows Of Reality

Yet their exuberance doesn’t mask the darker reality of their lives. In just the first chapter the narrator encounters an epileptic fit, suicide, illicit sex in the woods, and domestic violence. These don’t cause the boys any deep anxiety however; a sign perhaps that they are such common place occurrences they don’t warrant any commentary.

At one point for example they hear Moi’s mother scream. One boy asks if they should fetch the local policemen only for Moi to reply: “No, there’s no need for that. He won’t do anything to her. They’re always like that.” Their innate curiosity takes over so they inch closer to the door, to find Moi’s mother fighting with his uncle; one armed with a bread knife, the other with a tuck knife. Minutes later they’re all sitting around scoffing bread and butter as if nothing untoward had occurred.

Shadows of Hardship and War

These are kids whose lives are framed by hunger and hardship. The first World War has cast its shadow on the village, creating heroes but also bringing death. The boys go to school but know their childhood will not last much longer. Their families need them to work, to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. So just like their fathers, they’ll head to the nearby slate quarry.

One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a story as such. It’s a series of episodes that spin through different points in time; mixing gossip and anecdote with dreams and recollections. At some points the narrative seems to even leave reality behind, entering the realm of myth with invocations to the Queen of The Black Night and the Queen of Snowdon (the Beautiful One)

Come again my Beautiful One, come again and take me before the sun rises from his resting place, before we are disturbed by the bleating of the lamb; fully possess your chosen one before the withering of the moon’s candle; prepare before me the joy of my afternoon.

Lyrical Yet Ordinary

Caradog Prichard offers a heady mix of the lyrical and the commonplace but also draws heavily on local dialect and expressions. Few characters have standard names; instead they’re denoted by their occupation, or their relation to another character or their residence. So we have Elwyn Top Row, Little Will Policeman’s Dad, Bob Milk Cart, Johnny Beer Barrel’s Dad and – my favourite – Will Starch Collar.

Seeing these names on the page reminded me so much of the village where my parents were born. Few people there used surnames either. When they spoke about a neighbour or someone else in the village. It was always Jones the Milk or Dai Post or Evan Two Shoes (the origin of which is lost in the mists of time). It’s a practice possible only in a small community where that can be just one post man or milkman,

Won Over By Energetic Narrator

I didn’t take to this book initially but slowly its humour and energy won me over. I loved the narrator who has a zest for life that’s hard to quench and a love for his gran and his widowed mother that is matched only by his love of bread and butter and lobscouse (a kind of lamb and vegetable stew). He even prays for food, inspired by a line from the Lord’s Prayer he’d recited in church that morning:

Give us this day our daily bread … bread.
And after saying daily bread, I didn’t go any further with the others, I just started thinking. I remembered Mam telling me before we came to Church that we had no bread to make bread and butter with, and so I asked God for some more daily bread cos the parish money wasn’t coming till Friday.

That quote is one of many examples of how Pritchard blends humour and darkness in this novel. One moment you’re amused by a small child who takes a very literal interpretation of a prayer and the next you’re jolted into recognition this is a family very much on the breadline. What begins as a narrative of childhood fun and laughter, slowly but steadily gets darker until the final, heartbreaking ending.

It’s an unforgettable book.

One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard: End Notes

Caradog Pritchard

One Moonlit Night was written in the Welsh language and published in 1961 under the title Un Nos Ola Leuad. The first English translation was issued in 1995, followed by a BBC radio broadcast in English the following year.

The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales called the book “one of the most impressive novels to be published in Wales since the Second World War.” with a narrative stye reminiscent of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was Caradog Prichard’s best known work although he was also a highly regarded poet, three times winning the National Eisteddfod crown.

My edition was published in 2015, translated by Philip Mitchell. I read it as part of the Wales Reading Month (called Dewithon) hosted by Paula at BookJotter.

What I’m Reading: Episode 26, March 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

For the first time ever I purchased a book in advance of publication. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so much, I just had to have the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I wasn’t expecting The Mirror & The Light to be so big. Huge in fact and because it’s in hardback, it’s heavy. Which makes it very difficult to read in bed….

Hilary Mantel

But that’s only part of the reason why my progress through this book is at glacial speed. The main factor is that this is a book which takes a good amount of concentration. Mantel’s narration is slippery. You have to keep on your toes to be certain who is speaking. Plus there are a lot of characters (the list at the front of the book is five pages long).

But I’m not complaining. This is a book of sheer brilliance. It is absolutely meant to be savoured. I suspect I’m still going to be reading it when it’s time to do my April edition of “What I’m Reading”.  

What I just finished reading

WalesReadingMonth (otherwise known as Dewithon 2020) has been running throughout March. As you’d expect I’ve been participating in the event hosted by Paula at Book Jotter by reading a few books by Welsh authors that were on my TBR shelves.

I posted my review of one of these – Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans – a few days ago. It wasn’t great. Far more to my taste was One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard. It was written in the Welsh language in 1961 as a portrayal of life in a small slate quarrying town in North Wales. The narrator recalls his childhood in this community, a life in which joy, sadness and tragedy are seldom apart.

Caradog Pritchard

Pritchard’s novel is written in a poetic style but also uses the local dialect. Once you’ve tuned into this, and got accustomed to the oddities of character names (Will Starch Collar is my favourite), the book is tremendous. I’ll post a more considered response in the next few days.

Incidentally the photo was taken on what turned out to be my very last trip to a coffee shop for some considerable time. No prizes for guessing why coffee shops are no go areas right now.

I also just finished The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, a debut novel which comes out in April. It has an interesting twist on the theme of relationships because it focuses on a married couple who have not spoken to each other for six months. I’m on the blog tour for this mid April so will share my thoughts in a few weeks.

Abbie Greaves

What I’ll read next

I said at the beginning of the year that I was pulling back from reading challenges that involved making lists of books to read or goals for the number of books to read. But I am joining in short reading events where I can and where I have a suitable book/s on my TBR.

There are two coming up fairly soon. One is ZolaAddictionMonth hosted by Fanda and the other is the 1920club hosted by Karen and Simon.

I have one book lined up for each.

For Zola Addiction month I have His Excellency Eugene Rougon/Son Excellence Eugène Rougon which is book number two in Zola’s Rougon-Macquet cycle. I’ve been reading them out of order but am now trying to fill in the gaps.

For the 1920 reading club I have Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. This will be the final book on my Classics Club project (woo hoo….)

I turned to Twitter to help me decide which to read first. But it didn’t help. Because it was a draw… So I shall have to rely on my instinct instead.

In the meantime there is the (not so small) matter of the Mantel to finish, and The Binding which is the next book club choice. And a library loan of Actress by Anne Enright (not that it needs to be finished soon because libraries have gone the way of coffee shops). And more than 200 other books on my shelves.

I shall be busy.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Passion and Cruelty in Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans [book review]

Turf or Stone is an “amazing, fantastical, invigorating reading experience” according to Kate Gramich in her foreword to the Library of Wales edition of  Margiad Evans’s novel. 

Turf or Stone

That was a long way from my experience. I find it hard to accept that such a dark, troubling and uncomfortable novel about the extremes of human emotion could be invigorating. Passion, violence and cruelty are ever present, with only a few moments of unexpected tenderness to lighten the darkness. 

We’re only a few pages into the book when this becomes evident. Mary Bicknor, a servant cum companion to an eccentric lady, is to be married. She has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable existence but falls from grace when she discovers she is pregnant by Easter Probert, a groom at a local farm.  The vicar hurriedly pushes the pair into marriage. But this is a relationship clearly doomed never to work. 

Disastrous Start to Marriage

The bride cries all the way through the marriage service. There are no witnesses or guests. Mary is presentably dressed but Easter turns up in old and dirty clothes. He’s forgotten a ring so at the last moment has to take a thick twisted one from his hand that is far too big for the woman. On their way home, he snatches the ring back and pushes her over into the mud

Easter continues to be a cruel husband. He’s a serial womaniser who takes pleasure in hurting and humiliating his wife. Mary is driven to despair. She contemplates suicide but finds comfort instead in an affair with her husband’s employer, a married man with three children. She applies for a legal separation order so she and her young son can start a new life away from both men. The novel ends with Easter on the receiving end of a form of poetic justice. 

A Monstrous Womaniser

n Easter, Margiad Evans has devised a protagonist who has few redeeming qualities. He is sullen, insolent and brutish. Appropriately Easter is described repeatedly in nightmarish, animalistic terms. When his employer’s daughter Phoebe hears him knocking the door one night, she’s confronted with the grotesque vision of a man peering through the window looking “livid, the upper teeth were showing and a large spider’s web, really on the inside, seemed at that distance to be hanging from his mouth. 

Enough to give you the creeps. Yet he has no trouble persuading women into his bed. He seems to have a strange and perplexing hold on them; they recognise the danger he presents and are repelled by him but they still don’t walk away.

Moral Complexity

However much he bears a resemblance to some brooding Gothic figure, Easter is not a caricature. Evans invests him with moral complexity, particularly in his relationship to women. We’re told he “loved women who were sad and gentle, and suffered him,” That word “suffer” is central to understanding his constant swings swings between sexual desire and hatred, between a desire to be loved and violence when he isn’t. 

He’s hoping that Mary will be kind towards him but when she doesn’t “suffer” him, he takes revenge in brutish behaviour. One of the most terrible scenes in the novel takes place when his wife is five months pregnant. He comes home with “a surprise”: a dead rat he puts into her bed.

And he pushed it deeper and deeper into her flesh, till, hanging round his neck, she dragged herself up, and with the poisonous little carcass crushed between them, seized him by the ear and tugged.They struggled furiously in the darkness.He did not strike her; he half carried, half dragged her across the room and poured a jug of water over her head. 

The details are horrific. Told that the “rats eyes are running, there are flies’ eggs in the fur, the tail’s half off,” Mary crawls away “like a thrashed animal in snarling despair” to cower with her face against the wall. The scene ends with Easter swamped by ‘voluptuous tenderness’ sleeping with her in his arms. 

Childhood Influences

Turf or Stone suggests the reason for his Easter’s appalling cruelty lies in his neglected childhood. Which created in him a deep seated desire for human warmth. I’m no psychologist but can’t see how violence will get him what he most desires. Even if I understood his motivation, it didn’t make me warm to him in any way, particularly when you see the predatory way he creeps around his employer’s fifteen year old daughter. 

This is a novel thick with misery and strife. Too much of it really for me to enjoy. If it had come with more light and shade, and if we’d been given more access to Mary’s side of the relationship, I think I would been more interested. I’d been looking forward to reading this having heard for years about Margiad Evans but in the end it was a disappointment.

Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans: Endnotes

Margiad Evans
Margiad Evans

Margiad Evans was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler who though born in England developed a lifelong affinity with the Marches, the area on the English/Welsh border.

She became aquainted with this part of the world when she was a child and visited her aunt and uncle’s farm near Ross on Wye. Her family moved to a house just outside Ross when she was aged 12. After her marriage she went to live on a nearby farm.

Margiad Evans wrote extensively throughout her life: novels, short stories, autobiography and poems. She kept a journal, often written on scraps of paper or in exercise books. After her death her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales.

Turf or Stone was her third novel, published in 1936.

10 One Word Book Titles

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is Books With Single-Word Titles.

I’m giving my list an international flavour because this week marks the start of two reading months celebrating the literature of Celtic nations. Wales Reading Month 2020 (otherwise known as Dewithon2020) and Irish Reading Month are highlights of the year. We’re also in the midst of the Japanese Literature Challenge.

So I’m going to build my list entirely from books by Welsh and Irish authors. that I’ve either read or have on my “to read” shelves.

Books

From Wales

Pigeon by Alys Conran: A debut novel from an author who is a talent to watch. Alys swept the boards at the  Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards 2017 with this tale of a prank by two children from broken homes. It goes disastrously wrong, with consequences for the rest of their lives.

Cove by Cynan Jones: A stunningly atmospheric novella about a man who is incapacitated while kayaking in the midst of a storm. All he hopes is to make it back to land, to the woman and unborn child who need him.

Resistance by Owen Sheers: a highly regarded novel which imagines what might have unfolded if wartime German troops had occupied a remote Welsh community.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer: I had to include Belinda because she lives very close to my home! This is her award-winning debut work that is part one of a crime trilogy set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. 

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin : Lovekin’s novel draws on Welsh folklore, in particular the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. 

From Ireland

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: a quietly understated but no less effective novel set partly in a provincial Irish town in the early 1950s. The central character has to make a choice between remaining in the town with its limited opportunities or seeking a new life in New York.

Troubles by J G Farrell. This is the first title in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy. The plot concerns the dilapidation of a once grand Irish hotel (symbolic of the declining British Empire), in the midst of the political upheaval during the Irish War of Independence. Though it’s a commentary on the state of Ireland, the novel is very funny at time because the set is is rather bizarre with the frayed-around=the edges guests forced to share their accommodation with a large number of feral cats.

Milkman by Anna Burns: one of the most well-deserved winners of the Booker Prize in recent years. It takes patience to tune into the digressive, stream of consciousness narration where no character is given a name. But this novel set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s Troubles is incredibly powerful.

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. This is one I bought several years ago (but have not yet read) after I read her hugely successful novel Room. Slammerkin is also a story of survival, this time set in the 1760s. It focuses on Mary Saunders, a teenage girl forced to make her own way in the world after being put out on to the streets by her callous mother.

Girl by Edna O’Brien: At the age of 88, Edna O’Brien, is showing no sign of losing her capacity to write thought-provoking novels that tackle contemporary issues. Girl is a story set in an unnamed country but is recognisably Nigeria and imagines the lives of the girls abducted by Boko Haram. This is high on my “to read’ list.

Do any of these appeal to you? What would you have put on your own version of this Top 10?

Take To The Streets With The Suffragettes in The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood

The White Camellia is an atmospheric novel of family secrets and revenge set against the background of the Suffragette movement.

Juliet Greenwood plunges us into the lives of two women from vastly different backgrounds but united in their determination to control their own destiny.

One is Sybil Ravensdale, a Cornishwoman of lowly stock who has become a wealthy owner of hotels in the United States. When the book opens she has returned to England to expand her business and decides to buy Tressillion House, a Jacobean style manor on the Cornish coast that has fallen into disrepair.

The other is a young woman born into riches but now living in straightened circumstances in London with her widowed mother and younger sister. Beatrice Tressillion had to leave Tressillion House when her father died and the family was tainted with the scandal of an accident at a mine on the estate.

Revenge And Mystery

As the story unfolds it’s evident that Sybil Ravensdale is a woman seeking revenge; for what we don’t exactly know. But it’s somehow connected to Tressillion House and to Beatrice. The mystery element is well handled because, though there are plenty of hints, Sybil’s secret is not revealed until the very final pages of the book.

Juliet Greenwood does a fabulous job of creating the atmosphere of the two principal settings. The London sections come full of dark alleys, poverty and drunks while Ross and Demelza Poldark would feel quite at home in the chapters set on the Cornish coast. There’s even an abandoned iron mine (rumoured to contain a rich seam of gold) for Ross to try and re-open.

Even more appealing however was the historical context for the novel. The year is 1909, a time which marked an escalation of the fight for the right of British women to vote in public elections. After years of peaceful campaigning and meetings, the women and their male supporters take to the streets with larger scale demonstrations and even greater determination. The police are equally determined to stop them.

Beatrice stumbles into this world via The White Camellia Tearoom. It’s a fictional location but represents the kind of London cafe and tearoom that allowed women to meet in safety without fear of molestation or accusations of improper behaviour. The women who work and patronise the tearoom give Beatrice courage to face her dilemma: to secure her family’s future by marriage to a wealthy man or follow her own desire for a career and a life of freedom from control.

Fighting for Independence

The White Camellia shows the issue at the heart of the suffragette movement; the constraints felt by the women of this period and their lack of opportunity. With the marriage her mother desires, Beatrice will get security and status but lose her independence and her dream of becoming a journalist. Without marriage, she will be confined to lowly paid jobs and a life of hardship.

Faced with the same challenge, Sybil Ravensdale decided to take the path of independence, fighting her way to prosperity against men who viewed her as a commodity:

.. she’d seen other women fall for a charming smile and attention, until marriage gave a suitor control over their lives and a fortune. As far as she could see that was hell on earth. She would never hand over to another the power to take all her hard work away, leaving her back on the streets.

This could so easily have become a novel bogged down by detail and ‘message’ But the factual information was so skillfully woven into the book that I got the benefit of the context without feeling I was being subjected to a lecture. And the characters are so vividly constructed that when they talk about their attitudes to freedom and female emancipation they don’t sound as if they’re reading from a script.

That authenticity is exactly what you need in a historical novel. If you want a book that gives you the feeling of being on the streets during a suffragette march, or underground in a disused mine, The White Camellia will more than satisfy your need.

The White Camellia: End Notes

Juliet Greenwood, author of The White Camellia

Juliet Greenwood is a historical fiction author based in Wales. Having worked in London for nearly ten years, she now lives in a traditional Welsh cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia.

She began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now recovered she spends her time writing, working on local oral history projects and helping aspiring writers.

The White Camellia was published by the Welsh independent press Honno in September 2016. Juliet has two other novels also published by Honno: Eden’s Garden and We That Are Left.

Want to discover other authors from Wales? Check out my list of 88 novels or join in with Dewithon2020 – a month long celebration of Welsh literature. #dewithon20

The Cove: A Lyrical Haunting Narrative of Man Against the Elements

The Cove by Cynan Jones

Cynan Jones’ The Cove is less than 100 pages long but it’s packed with intensely atmospheric prose that sucks you in from the first paragraph and doesn’t let you go.

It begins with a short prologue in which a woman stands on a shore waiting for the result of a rescue mission out in the bay. The focus then shifts to a man adrift in a kayak, having been caught in a sudden storm and struck by lightening

When he regains consciousness, he has no knowledge of how much time has elapsed or how far he is from the cove. He’s disorientated, badly injured, has no food and a minimum of water. The only equipment at his disposal is his fishing line and a frying pan.

The odds are against him but his instinct for survival is strengthened by his overwhelming love for the woman and unborn child waiting for him back on land.

The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for. He believed he would know more as he neared her.

Getting in Close

This is prose that is slowly, almost microscopically rendered. Cynan Jones makes us feel as if we’re in the kayak with this man, shadowing every small action that he hopes will help him to survive.

He clipped the line that was attached to the hook to the feather trace and moved the weight so it was linked from the baited hook. Then he threw out the rig and let out the line.

His disorientation renders him unable to focus on practicalities for any length of time. Without a clock or a watch, time has in fact ceased to have any meaning: “he thinks of whiles, moments – things less measurable.”

As he drifts in and out of consciousness, he contemplates the way the life beneath the waves comes “alive like a living skin“; with the fin of a sunfish “folding, flopping” and a flock of jellyfish floating “like negligees.” And he reflects on his life; the father whose ashes he had taken with him in the kayak to scatter upon the water; the woman waiting for him on the shore.

Memories are triggered by small discoveries. At one point he finds a wren’s feather inside his dead mobile phone, an object that reminds him of his partner who has a similar feather. The glimpses of the past and of a new future give him the strength to try and survive.

Economical But Lyrical Prose

Every word in The Cove has been carefully selected. It’s a terse economical style yet still rich in imagery, metaphors and similies. He has for example a a sense of himself as “a fly trapped the wrong side of glass” with a  “memory like a dropped pack of cards.”  He can recall the beginning of the journey and drifting out to sea but “the time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map.”

This is a haunting novel. Though it’s more than a year since I read The Cove I still remember the atmosphere and the imagery so clearly. It’s now joined a very elite group of contemporary novels that I am certain to re-read.

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