I spotted Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones when browsing the library. It is an entry upon my 2017 reading list, and when easing it out from the shelves where it was sandwiched between two rather enormous tomes, I was surprised to see how slim it was. Its ‘powerful meditation on one family’s passage through the 20th century’, and the modern world which serves to threaten their traditional rural life in Wales, sounded absolutely lovely. I adore quiet novels which take me to a different time and place, and The Life of Rebecca Jones certainly ticks all of those boxes.
The Life of Rebecca Jones has been translated from its original Welsh by Lloyd Jones. In its native Wales, the book was heralded a ‘modern classic’ upon its publication, and it has been highly regarded in literary avenues since it was transcribed into English. Jan Morris describes it as ‘the most fascinating and wonderful book’, and Kate Saunders in The Times writes: ‘The ending will make you want to turn right back to the beginning.’
From the outset, there is a definite brooding power to the narrative, and an ever-present thoughtfulness embedded into every single sentence: ‘This was a reversal of creation. The perfection of an absence. / Tranquility can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world. It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting. It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace. It connects interior with exterior.’
An ageing Rebecca narrates the whole; her voice is measured and incredibly human: ‘I too have sought peace throughout my life. I’ve encountered it, many times on a more lasting silence; and I will find it before I die. My eyesight dwindles and my hearing fails. What else should I expect, at my age? But neither blindness nor deafness can perfect the quietness which is about to fall on this valley.’ There is a ruminative quality to her voice, and the use of retrospective positioning only adds to this effect.
Rebecca has lived within Cwm Maesglasau for all of her life; she adores it, but the sadness which she feels at the changes within her community and landscape are prevalent. Of her home, she writes: ‘Cwm Maesglasau is my world. Its boundaries are my boundaries. To leave it will be unbearably painful.’ The landscape is as important a character within the novel as Rebecca herself; this is obvious from the very beginning. Price shows just how deeply person and place are connected, and the affects and effects of the two. She describes the scenes which Rebecca and her ancestors saw so vividly, bringing them to life for the reader: ‘There is a crimson tunnel of foxgloves and a sparkling dome of elderflower: the same intricate design, Evan notes, of the lace on his wife’s bodice. Sunshine streaming through the canopy spangles her hair with stars’.
Despite The Life of Rebecca Jones identifying as a work of fiction, photographs have been used throughout, giving it the quality of autofiction. Its words and their accompanying images are filled with traditions. It adds to the reading experience that some of the original Welsh vocabulary has been included, sometimes alongside their English translations, and otherwise understandable within their context.
Rebecca Jones is the name of the narrator, as well as of her mother and grandmother. In this manner, Price effectively tells three stories, which are similar but have discernible differences in their way. The novel is an incredibly contemplative one; it almost makes one yearn for times gone by. The structure which Price makes use of is one of fragmented memories; the only links between them are often that they have been lived by the narrator, or by members of her immediate family. The reading experience which has been created is a sensual one; in interruptions to Rebecca’s voice, a stream has been personified, and its journey shown with beautiful, lyrical prose. The Life of Rebecca Jones is quietly beautiful; it demonstrates a life filled with sadnesses, but one which is still cherished nonetheless.