The 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.
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.
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.
Thomas 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.
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.