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None So Blind (The Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries) by Alis Hawkins #writingWales

Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of  Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Rebecca riots

Artist’s illustration of the Rebecca Rioters. Source: Wikipedia

In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.

The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers –  often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.

They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame. 

The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.

It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.

Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.

none so blind

Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”. 

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation,  making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.

…  I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…

It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.

The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .

It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind  that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause.  Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:

… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.

None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of  mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a  lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.

This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.


About the Author

Author Pic Alis HawkinsAlis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.

About the Book 

None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.

Bookends #9 Sept 2018

For once I am not racing to get the Bookends post done before the weekend disappears. Maybe it’s the Indian summer we are currently experiencing in the UK that has stimulated my productivity?

This week I bring you an article about one woman’s bid to read 200 female writers by 2020, how to tackle the challenge of reading challenging books and a novel

Book: Ash by Alys Einin..

AshMy book choice today comes from Honno, an independent women’s press based in Wales. This is the second novel by Alys Einon who somehow finds the time to write in between her work as an associate professor in midwifery and women’s health and a part-time lecturer for the Open University.

Ash is the story of a woman who runs away from an abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia with her four sons and infant daughter, Aisha. She finds sanctuary with a community of women at Blossom House but is always fearful that her husband will come looking for his children.

It’s a while since I read anything by Honno but this is a good opportunity to make up for lost time.

 

 

Blog Post: Unhappy experiences reading assigned books

CurlyGeek has been making good progress with a ReadHarder challenge this year but the latest requirement, to revisit a classic that she hated, has her thinking back to other unhappy experiences with classics.  In her latest update she names Jane Eyre as her nemesis but also still bears scars from being made to read Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter.

I bet everyone has their own bête noires from their time in the education system.

Mine would be:

Comus by John Milton. Can you imagine anything more unlikely to interest a bunch of hormone-charged sixteen-year-olds than a 17th century masque in honour of chastity? I have no recollection about the plot or the characters – I simply remember it as being deadly dull.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. This was something to do with a student and the gulf of understanding between him and his father. I had my usual difficulty with Russian novels – the way that characters seem to have more than one name, making it doubly hard to keep track of who each person is.

The Rover by Aphra Behn. This was a set text on an Open University literature course, selected I strongly suspect because it was felt there should be a recognition of women writers. Even seeing a production starring Daniel Craig (many many years before he became famous as James Bond) did nothing to increase my enjoyment of this text.

Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know that for some people, my inclusion of this novel is tantamount to heresy. Sorry everyone but I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. It’s ok but nothing more. I’ve read it three times and get the same reaction each time.

What would be on your list??

Article: 200 books by women writers

Sophie Baggott was shocked to learn that male authors account for two thirds of the translated fiction market. Three months ago she set out to change her own reading habits by embarking on a project to read 200 books by women authors from around the world by the year 2020.

Her starting point she says was ” a realisation that anglocentric and male-dominated reading habits were blinkering my worldview.”

She’s now 10% of the way to achieving her goal and has put a list together of books she has read so far, and the countries she has yet to visit. The Guardian article in which she explains her project  is here.  She has also created a blog where she lists the books she has read and the countries she has yet to visit.  I’m going to watch this with interest because in my own world of literature project (one that is considerably more modest in scale than Sophie’s) I have struggled to find authors from some countries and I wasn’t giving myself the added hurdle of only reading female authors.

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore #Writing Wales

A Time for Silence - Thorne MooreThe last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”

This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon  the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents.  She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.

Sarah’s  pursuit  of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.

It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.

Footnotes

The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.

The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.

Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.

 

 

Sunday Salon: Reading a Welsh legend

dragon

Y Ddraig Goch (“the red dragon”) – national symbol of Wales

Friday was St David’s Day here in Wales, the feast day of our patron saint. It’s a day when the nation is meant to celebrate our heritage and what it means to be Welsh. In my childhood, it meant going to school dressed in our national costume of a black and white check skirt, white blouse, red shawl and the most ludicrous of black hats, and spending hours singing and reciting poetry (in Welsh).

Fortunately these days I can mark the day in rather more refined fashion – which was why this week I indulged in A Few Selected Exits, the autobiography  of one of most eminent writers Gwyn Thomas.

Gwyn was born in 1913 as the twelfth child of a coal miner in the Rhondda valleys of South Wales. His mother died when he was six and it was left to his sisters to care for the family, relying often on soup kitchens particularly during the depression years of the 1920s or when the miners went on strike for better working conditions.

For boys like him there was scant hope of escaping the desperate poverty of this area; he was destined like his elder brothers to follow them down the mines. But Gwyn miraculously escaped by virtue of a scholarship to read Spanish at Oxford university. It might have seemed his life had turned a corner but he struggled to find full-time work and to get his novels and plays published. Only in 1946 did his work come to the attention of the BBC and he was commissioned to write for the radio, then became a regular panelist on the prestigious BBC Brains Trust chat show and a regular presenter and respected commentator on Welsh politics and life in general.

His was a mellifluous voice that could ring with wit and humour one moment and then soar with passion the next. His oration at the commemoration service for the Aberfan disaster is a tremendous example of his ability to perfectly project the mood of a nation stricken with grief with humanity and gravitas.

In  A Few Selected Exits, it’s his wit, his love of words, and his powers of observation that are most evident as he  describes his life through a series of comic episodes and a cast of hilarious characters like  Nim Jones a young neighbour who constantly dashes about the village with gossip.

However quietly, secretely, a thing might happen, Nim would get to know and he instantly became a vibrant wire stretched from one end of the village to the other, telling the facts.  Ned was shouting my name and his face was blithe. This gave no clue to the nature of the news he bore. Rape, arson, theft, subsidence, all flowed with equal ease into the net of Nim’s enjoyment.

gwyn thomasThomas tells these stories in a conversational tone that reveals little about himself but much about his love for his fellow countrymen and their eccentricities.There are so many passages that it’s hard to choose just one to illustrate his style but one of my favourite episodes from the early part of the book comes when Thomas is persuaded by his headmaster that the one thing he will need in Oxford is an overcoat. Not just any coat, but one made by the valley’s finest tailor. It will act as Gwyn’s armour against those in Oxford who will undoubtedly look down on him. On the day the coat is finished, Gwyn tries it on surrounded by eager neighbours. They all understand the symbolic importance of getting this coat just right.

A large group assembled to see me put the coat on for the first time, for between the ascension of a local boy to Oxford, and the sight of so much new fabric, the occasion was regarded s pretty glossy

When the garment fell into place, there was silence. My father looked at Mr Warlow [the tailor] as if he were the last instalment in some long purchase of perplexity. The coat came to within an inch or two of the floor. The buttons, of prodigious size, seemed to come down just as far as if afraid to let the fabric make the long journey south on its own. Mr Warlow did not seem to have taken my stoop into consideration and the great hoop of collar looked down at my neck either with contempt or just thoughtfully.

On the morning of my departure for the ancient university I marched down the hill to the coach station feeling like an emperor and looking like a cross between Sam Weller and a shrouded dwarf.

It’s passages like these, and many others, that remind me of the first lines of the poem by Brian Harris.

IN PASSING
To be born in Wales,
Not with a silver spoon in your mouth,
But, with music in your blood
And with poetry in your soul,
Is a privilege indeed.

Gwyn Thomas certainly never had the the silver spoon but he most assuredly had poetry and music is his soul.

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