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‘Touch and Go’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

I waxed lyrical about the first of Elizabeth Berridge’s novels which I read, Across the Common.  On the basis of reading the wonderful and absorbing novel, which I reviewed two weeks ago, I broke my year-long book-buying ban in order to pick up three more paperback editions of other Berridge books.  Touch and Go is a far later work, first published in 1995, and marked her return to novel writing after more than a decade.

The protagonist of Touch and Go is a woman in her late thirties named Emma Rowlands, who has just gone 81n6vihziilthrough quite a nasty divorce.  She has returned to the quaint Welsh village in which she spent her childhood, taking with her ‘no more than some favourite pieces of china, books, flowers, and her small pregnant cat.’  She has left behind her broken marriage, a flat in London, and a teenage daughter, who has fled to India to escape her parents’ constant arguments.  She has come into the inheritance of the old doctor’s surgery and house in the village, and is both nervous and excited to build a new future for herself.

Touch and Go begins in the ‘middle of October, with dusk curtaining the hills’.  As soon as she arrives, Emma begins to notice changes within the village ‘that marked her as a stranger and mad to come back.’  The house which she has returned for, Domen Gastell, is ‘solid, red and four-square on top of the hill’.  In her initial darkness-tinted exploration of her new abode, Berridge gives a series of wonderfully vivid descriptions: ‘She stalked over to see what kind of view there was from the long window, kneeling on a wide window-seat to look out into the damp, dark scenery of the garden beyond the bushes.’

Throughout, Berridge provides such a realistic portrayal of Emma, and her myriad feelings.  On her first full day, for instance, Emma ‘felt a painful excitement; an almost uncontrollable pleasure which gave her a headache; a giant fear that all this would be snatched away.’  One quickly gets a feel for how much the house, and the fresh start, means to her: ‘Emma was flushed with exploration, dizzy with ownership.’

Rather than her life in progressive London, Emma finds a community which holds onto its traditional values.  As her time in Wales goes on, Emma meets many figures from her past – a slightly disgruntled housekeeper who seems to come with the inheritance of the house, and a rather bossy childhood friend named Debby, for instance, who quickly makes her wonder about her place in the friendship: ‘Should she allow Debby to take over?  For years she had allowed her husband to do just that and was only now piecing together her own previous identity.’

Berridge creates wonderful atmosphere in Touch and Go.  In one of my favourite passages from the book, she writes: ‘The house was very silent and she was held in a strange immobility, as if she were in the middle of a web, and the threads of other people’s lives dense around her.’

Where Berridge’s real strength lies here is in the differences she outlines between the generations.  Emma’s mother Adela, for instance, is chiefly concerned with appearances.  When we first meet her, Adela, who has not seen Emma for quite some time, has these initial thoughts: ‘Had she put on weight and was the colour in her cheeks the beginning of weathering?  Could she warn her about broken veins?…  She hoped that Emma was not letting herself go; at her age she could surely marry again.’  This proves a marked contrast to the attitude of Emma’s daughter, Charlotte: ‘Evidently Emma’s move, exhausting and traumatic to her, meant little to her daughter, caught up as she was with exhilarating new experiences: jewels and saris…  a whole dazzling continent to discover.’

Touch and Go is a very readable novel, but I must admit that I did not feel as absorbed by it as I did with Across the Common.  The secondary characters in this novel were not as vivid to me, and until close to the end, there is not a great deal of plot.  A lot of the narrative in Touch and Go, too, is taken up with conversations between Emma and various friends and neighbours, almost all of whom reminisce about her parents.  There are some very tender and memorable moments within it, though.  It reminded me somewhat of Dodie Smith’s familial sagas, novels which I really enjoy.

Berridge has been getting somewhat more recognition over recent months, which is wonderful to see.  I only hope that publishers follow suit and reissue all of her novels in the very near future.  I can certainly see that Berridge will become one of my favourite authors, and feel as though I have a great deal of literary treats in store as I make my way through her oeuvre.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dew on the Grass’ by Eiluned Lewis ****

Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten.  First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales.  Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’9781870206808

The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read.  The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University.  She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’  Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life.  I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.

Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters.  Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’  She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years…  Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’  Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.

Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry.  Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter.  She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.

Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once.  Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’  Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak.  It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’

Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’  The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully.  It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book.  Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her.  Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others.  This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.

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‘No Way of Telling’ by Emma Smith ****

I had previously read, and very much enjoyed, Emma Smith’s The Far Cry, which was reprinted by Persephone in 2002.  I was keen to read more of Smith’s work, and ordered a gorgeous old paperback version of No Way of Telling, a novel which she wrote for children.  It stood out to me as a seasonal choice which I could read over the winter season.

6111016The protagonist of No Way of Telling is a young, and highly likeable, girl named Amy Bowen, who lives with her grandmother in rural Radnorshire in Wales, two miles away from the nearest village, and five from her school.  When the novel begins, it is wintertime, and a terrible snowstorm is on its way.  Once Amy returns from school, she and her grandmother stay inside, ‘safely-happy in the warmth of their mountain cottage while the blizzard raged outside.’  All of a sudden, ‘the door broke open, and there stood a shape so big that to Amy it was more of a monster than a man.  He said nothing, only grabbed some food and disappeared again into the stormy darkness.’  He is like something from ‘a bad dream, except that Amy and Mrs Bowen knew they were both awake.’  Grandmother and granddaughter are fearful; they wonder who he is, if he will return, and whether he is ‘hunter or hunted’.  They have, at this point, ‘no way of telling’.

So much attention has been paid to the rural surroundings throughout the novel.  Smith’s descriptions, particularly of the snowy landscape, are glorious.  When the blizzard begins, and Amy is walking home, she writes: ‘The flakes were big and loose, soft white lumps of snow blowing across sideways on the wind as though they too were in haste to get home.’  She goes on to describe the effects which such weather has on her young protagonist: ‘Snow, she thought, was a marvel – it was indeed!  Snow was like nothing else: it changed the world, the whole of life, in a matter of moments.  Not only the shapes of trees and grasses were changed but daily habits – even laws lost their power and had no meaning when snow fell.’  Throughout, Smith explores the weather, and the nuances in the way it changes, fantastically.  As Amy walks on, she captures the fear and disorientation which such a blizzard can bring with it: ‘There was nothing to see; nothing but a white swarming nothingness.  The hill that rose up in front of her was invisible and the snow itself had altered.  The flakes were smaller now and driving harder.  She was uncertain of how far she had come, uncertain of exactly where she was; and as she realized this she felt a conscious movement inside her, the sudden squeeze of sudden fright.’

There is a dark thread which weaves its way through the entire novel.  Whilst it is aimed at children, the writing is not at all simplified, and Smith does not intentionally hide things from her readers.  The mystery element, of the man’s identity and the appearance of two men who appear afterwards, has been well handled.  The denouement of No Way of Telling is wonderful; it both surprises and satisfies in equal measure.  Smith has created a wonderfully palpable tension in her novel.

No Way of Telling is the perfect wintry read.  Smith was shortlisted for the 1973 Carnegie Medal for this novel, and one can see why almost immediately.  Her story is compelling, her characters wonderfully realistic, and her prose layered and intelligent.  She explores the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother, and the way in which the appearance of the stranger impacts upon their daily life.  Smith’s narrative style is engaging, and her two protagonists feel three-dimensional.  The novel appealed to me greatly as an adult reader, and had it been published as an adult novel, I would not have been at all disappointed with it.

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‘Mother Island’ by Bethan Roberts ****

Bethan Roberts is an author who has really piqued my interest of late, largely because of Savidge Reads raving about her work.  I chose Mother Island as my first book to read by her at random; it came up first when I searched my local library catalogue, and sounded like the kind of novel which I would enjoy.  Mother Island is Roberts’ fourth novel, and it was first published in 2014.

Told through the eyes of two protagonists, Mother Island explores the disappearance of a 18460014two-year-old boy named Samuel, who is taken to a secluded part of Anglesey by his nanny.  Nula Shaw, his mother, and Maggie, Sam’s nanny and Nula’s cousin, are ‘joined by old family history and love for the same little boy.’

Mother Island begins in Oxford, where Nula and her husband live.  Maggie originally relocated to the area for University, but for various reasons, decided not to finish her degree, and has been working as a nanny ever since.  The cousins met again after a long period of estrangement; the reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses.  We first meet Maggie in the novel’s prologue, on the night before she takes Sam.  The first chapter then opens on the fateful ‘hot morning in late June’, when Maggie arrives at the Shaws’ house as usual to care for Sam whilst his parents work, and decides, after much deliberation, to snatch him: ‘Once Nula has gone, Maggie does not rush.  Her heart does not speed up and her breathing remains steady.  She nows that this is the right thing to do.’  Maggie goes on to reflect: ‘That is the trouble with luxury, such as Samuel’s mother has.  It can make you feel safe when really you are not.’

The narrative then shifts back in time to reveal the relationships of both Nula and Sam, and Nula and Maggie.  The family dynamics portrayed are unusual, and quite fascinating.  Roberts explores Nula’s experiences of motherhood in some detail, recognising that it is often a difficult series of multilayered processes.  Early on, Roberts writes: ‘When Nula and Samuel were alone together during those first few weeks, this is what she saw: fists and feet, curled, cringing in the open coldness of the air.  Startled eyes, looking towards any chink of light, any moving thing.  Open mouth, pink and angry, always searching for her breast.  When she held him he would swim towards it, rubbing his face into her shoulder, armpit, smelling his way to her milk.  And she experienced something disturbing.  Her mind became locked – almost paralysed – in such a way that she thought she now understood what women meant when they said their brains had “gone to mush” following childbirth.  Prior to having Samuel she’d thought this “mush” must mean a kind of bliss, a swapping of feverish anxieties for the cuddly mess of the mother’s brain.  But this was not what happened.’  Further introspective snapshots detail further struggles which Nula had in reconciling her past, free self, with suddenly having someone entirely dependent upon her.

I found Mother Island to be rather atmospheric, with darkness bubbling in many of the descriptions.  When Maggie leaves, for instance, Roberts writes: ‘As she drives, she thinks about their destination.  The place they are heading for is across the water, which runs fast in all directions.  This makes it difficult to swim, unless you know the times and tides and where the sandbanks are.  You have to be sure of all this in order to get in the water. If you’re not, God help you.’  One of the real strengths of the novel for me was the way in which Roberts demonstrates volatility, both with regard to her troubled female protagonists, and when it comes to writing about the place to which Sam is taken.

The backstories which she presents help the characters to feel more realistic, and add another whole dimension of interest.  Although his backstory is largely absent given his young age, this is particularly true of Sam; Roberts captures the baby, and his moods and movements, so well.  There is a real strength in the novel too with regard to how Roberts presents emotions, and the speed at which they can change.  When the police have interviewed Nula and her husband about Sam’s disappearance, she writes of Nula: ‘And she goes upstairs, knowing none of them will follow her.  None of them will want to face the monster that is a mother whose child has disappeared.’

Whilst I did not find myself completely gripped initially when reading Mother Island, I found it caught my interest entirely after a while, and I was soon invested in the story. I found Roberts’ prose style really easy to read; her narrative is well written without being overcomplicated, and she is empathetic throughout whilst still scrutinising her protagonists.  She deals with some difficult topics with deftness here, and has created a well-paced and thoroughly satisfying novel.

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‘Eden’s Garden’ by Juliet Greenwood ****

I adored the first novel of Juliet Greenwood’s which I read a few months ago, We That Were Left, and was most keen to read the rest of her oeuvre.  I ordered a copy of her debut novel, Eden’s Garden, because I am so drawn to books which contain two distinct stories within them, and which overlap towards the end.  The stories here are set in 2011 and 1898.

9781906784355In the contemporary story, we follow a protagonist named Carys, whose ‘dreams for the future are falling apart as she returns to the Snowdonia village where she was born, to look after her mother.’  Greenwood describes the way in which ‘Carys’ past was here, amongst the mountains rising up behind the shabby little seaside town.  And in the smaller – and even shabbier – time-passed-by village in the hills, where every road and path led towards the rambling grounds of Plas Eden.’

Whilst in Wales once more, Carys is drawn back to this ‘ramshackle country house’, where she bade her childhood sweetheart farewell.  This episode is related in the prologue, which is set in 1996, and which marks the tone and sumptuous descriptions of the story that follows.  In the prologue, Greenwood writes: ‘It was strange, seeing the house from this unfamiliar angle.  Close to, Plas Eden was slightly shabby, in a homely, comforting sort of way.  Between the ivy, white paint peeled away from the masonry.  Moss collected where slates had slipped or broken, and the skinny beginnings of a tree sprouted from a broken edge of guttering on one side.’

The late Victorian story in Eden’s Garden intrigued me most: ‘The last time Ann was in London she was a spoilt, aristocratic bride.  Now she stands destitute on London Bridge, with the Meredith Charity Hospital her only lifeline.  But who can she trust, and will she ever escape her past?’  Both Ann and Carys ‘struggle with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions’, and are mysteriously connected to one another.

I was more interested in the Victorian story at first, but became far more drawn into the contemporary part of the novel once the mystery element was introduced.  The female characters almost sprang to life upon the page, but I found the males more problematic; some of them felt as though they had not quite been drawn realistically enough.  Regardless, the novel is still a highly atmospheric one, which takes place in both the Welsh and Cornish countryside, and is all the richer for having more than one setting.  The layering effect of story upon story here works wonderfully too.

Eden’s Garden is a wholly transporting novel, which I found immediately absorbing.  It is, like We That Were Left, a novel which entirely sweeps one away.  For a debut, this novel is highly polished, and its mystery carefully and cleverly pieced together.  I did find a couple of elements which Greenwood had dreamed up a little unbelievable, and others rather twee, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel overall.  Greenwood is an author who certainly deserves to be read more widely; I would recommend her work for fans of the likes of Kate Morton.

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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘Dew on the Grass’ by Eiluned Lewis ****

Eiluned Lewis is one of those wonderful female authors who wrote from the heart about places she knew and loved, and who appears – like so many authors of her generation – to have been unjustly forgotten.  First published in 1934, Dew on the Grass tells the autobiographical story of a young girl and her siblings growing up in the Montgomeryshire countryside in Wales.  Among Lewis’ concerns here are ‘gender domesticity, Welsh culture and the rural environment.’9781870206808

The novel has been reprinted in recent years by Honno, a focused press which focuses on translating works by Welsh women into English, and in bringing neglected novels back for new generations to read.  The insightful introduction which accompanies the novel has been written by Katie Gramich, a Professor at Cardiff University.  She writes at the outset of the reception of Dew on the Grass, which was ‘phenomenally successful’ upon its publication, ‘attracting positive reviews from literary critics, going rapidly through a number of editions, being translated into several languages, and winning the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year.’  Gramich then goes on to speak of Lewis’ own life.  I knew next to nothing about the author when I began to read, but feel rather familiar with her after learning about her early life, and the things which inspired her to begin a writing career.

Lewis’ focus within Dew on the Grass certainly lies with her child characters.  Gramich writes that ‘both mother and father are very much background figures in Lewis’s fictional world, where the norm, the central consciousness is that of the child.’  She goes on to compare Lewis to Dylan Thomas in their use of the child’s viewpoint, ‘though her work in this mode predates his by several years…  Like Thomas’s, Lewis’s child-world is not pure idyll but a place of imagination and delight hedged around with menace, punishment and disappointment.’  Gramich also gives a comparison between Lewis and Katherine Mansfield, one of my all-time favourite authors, which piqued my interest in the novel still further.

Rather than exploring the working class in her novel, as a lot of her contemporaries tended to do, Lewis looks at an upper middle-class family named the Gwyns, who are Anglo-Welsh landed gentry.  Nine-year-old Lucy, ‘dreamy, accident-prone and acutely alive to the world around her’ is the second eldest daughter.  She is a thoughtful child, and continually muses about the world around her.

Lewis’ prose is described as ‘sensuous, evocative and nostalgic’, and it often manages to be all of these things at once.  Of the house in which Lucy and her family live, for instance, she writes: ‘Succeeding generations of farmers and small gentry had added to the house, here a storey and there a room, heedless of symmetry or foundations, so that on starry nights, when the wind rushed… walls rocked, joists groaned and cracks widened ominously in the plaster.’  Dew on the Grass is filled with charming and touching details: ‘The names of their [the Gwyns’] four children, who grew up at Pengarth, were recorded by a pencilled legend on the stable door of stout oak.  It ran “Delia, Lucy, Maurice (in boots), Miriam (barefoot)” – being a memorial of the height of the young Gwyns at the time of this story.’

Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’  The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

The structure of Dew on the Grass fits the plot wonderfully.  It is made up of a lot of short story-length vignettes, and is overall a rather a quiet, but highly engaging, book.  Dew on the Grass is a celebration of Welsh life, and of childhood; it is clear that Lewis’ homeland was much cherished by her.  Filled with an innocent and nostalgic charm, the novel is quite quaint in some ways, but thought-provoking in others.  This forgotten novel certainly presents a bygone way of life, filled with beauty and sheer delight.

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‘The Morlo’ by L.A. Knight ****

I had never heard of L.A. Knight before I spotted a lovely vintage hardback edition of one of his pieces of nature writing, The Morlo, whilst browsing on Etsy.  The very fact that I could find little information about it, save that its focus was on seals in Pembrokeshire in Wales, piqued my interest further, and I ordered myself a copy at the tail-end of 2017.  It is so neglected, in fact, that I had to add the book’s Goodreads page myself.

The Morlo is a slim volume, running to just 62 pages in the first edition hardback, with the inclusion of charming old-fashioned illustrations by Peter Scott.  In his short introduction, Knight writes that he wrote this particular book as a tribute to those who go out on lifeboats in all weathers in order to save those who are in trouble at sea.  Knight dedicates his tome 59863to them, writing: ‘If this book has caught something of their spirit and of the elements in which they perform their deeds it will have done its work.’

I have surmised that The Morlo, named after the Welsh word for the seal and literally meaning ‘calf of the sea’, is a work of memoir rather than fiction, despite Knight’s lulling narrative voice, which does at times suggest that this is a fictionalised account.  Whilst writing a little of the coastguards and their work, this is focused upon one particular man, Davy Tregoran, and his rescue of a baby seal on Madryn Beach, who later comes back to visit him year after year.  Tregoran is incredibly well informed about the seals and their colony, and imparts many details onto Knight in his research for this particular tome.  Of the morlos, Tregoran imparts: ‘But “morlos” they are to me, and I love them all, from the battle-scarred old bulls, and the gentle cows with their marbled jackets and eyes, down to the little cruts of youngsters with their coats as fresh as the blossom of a blackthorn.’

Knight talks of the land beautifully, describing it with such care and attention to detail.  Of the slice of Pembrokeshire beach which is at the focus of The Morlo, he writes: ‘It was a secluded part of the coast, and there were rocky ledges and shelving strands of pebbles on the pocket-handkerchief beach which made ideal nurseries.’  He clearly has a love of the place, visiting it time and again, and his descriptions of the same stretch of coastline throughout the seasons are a delight to read: ‘In calm summer days the glittering seas and the blue and red rocks are enchanting, and the sun is reflected from the water as from the points of a million spears.  The waves lap softly around the feet of the cliffs, and the golden tide-wrack rises and falls as rhythmically as the chest of a sleeping giant.’  Knight captures movement and stormy conditions particularly well.  He continually appreciates the world around him, and passes this love of nature onto his reader.

In The Morlo, Knight has produced a lovely piece of travel and nature writing, with prose which hums in both its beauty and sadness.  It is a passionate and beautifully written account of the waters around St. David’s, whose ‘great headland… thrusts itself like a clenched fist into some of the most turbulent seas in the world.’  As a piece of nostalgia, The Morlo is just as lovely to read as one would surely find in coming to it for the purposes of natural history.  Quaint and lovely, The Morlo holds so much appeal.  The world gone by which Knight shows us is still remarkably recognisable, and the book is a real treat to discover.

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Reading the World: ‘The Life of Rebecca Jones’ by Angharad Price ****

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.’ 9780857387127

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.

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One From the Archive: ‘Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers’ by Mari Strachan **

First published in 2012.

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers follows Strachan’s wonderful début novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. The novel takes place two years after the end of the First World War in a relatively small town in the Welsh countryside.

The protagonist of the novel is twenty nine-year-old Rhiannon Davies, known to all as Non. She is the wife of Davey, a man who fought in the war and returned to Non in an almost unrecognisable state: ‘The War has taken her husband as surely as if it had killed him, and returned a stranger to her in his place’. 9781847675316

Non wakes one morning to find Davey crouched beneath the kitchen table, ‘shouldering an imaginary rifle’ and reliving the terrors which he was catapulted into during his time in the trenches. She desperately tries to keep this occurrence from their children – teenagers Wil and Meg from Davey’s first marriage, and seven-year-old Osian, a ‘shadow child’, taken in by the family when his young mother died. Osian shows little emotion and does not communicate with those around him, a fact which Non and Davey try greatly to ignore. Wil is kindly and compassionate, always trying to make those around him as happy as possible, but Meg seems his antithesis in many ways. She is a selfish girl, seen by others as ‘too young, and too cross and too silly’.

The novel has an impressive scope, seemingly aiming to highlight the effects of war upon a multitude of different people. Since the war began, the lives of the Davies family have altered greatly. Davey, once softly spoken and kind is snappy and headstrong on his return, and Non holds many secrets. Her situation is sad at times: ‘… she has no idea how to begin to fight back, how to begin to find the Davey who loved her’, but she is not always a likeable character. She is judgemental of everyone around her and is rather cruel and selfish at times.

A third person present tense perspective has been used throughout Dead Man’s Embers. Although this technique gives Strachan the ability to follow several characters and highlight their thoughts and feelings, Non is the sole focus of the narrative. Other characters are included only when they interact with her, making them flat and unrealistic in consequence. Every last one of the characters seems lacking, not fully developed enough to be believed. A good example of this can be found when one takes Davey’s mother, Catherine Davies, into account. She is referred to by her full name without fail throughout, and is consequently seen as a remote character. This third person perspective is distancing and the reader is unable to know any of the characters because of it.

Strachan evokes a somewhat chilling atmosphere from the outset. She perfectly captures the fear which has so encompassed Davey and the way in which his new persona has affected him and his family. Although the novel starts off in an intriguing manner, the rest of the story falls flat in comparison. Throughout, Strachan does bring in many questions and observations appropriate to the period, including Ireland’s fight for independence, the role of women following the war, and politics. Rather than being expanded upon, however, these elements are merely touched upon and lack any real significance when placed into the story.

Elements of the novel seemed a little far-fetched and do not really work with the story, and the novel’s twists are both unexpected and unrealistic. Some of the included scenes are rather tedious, particularly with regard to the filling in of the census form. The dialogue is not as good as it could be. Some of the exchanges seem a little too modern in their structure and are not reminiscent of the period in which the novel is set. Grammatical mistakes can be found in several places throughout the novel which detracts from the writing style.

Sadly, Dead Man’s Embers does not come alive as The Earth in B Flat does. The writing is not as spellbinding and the story is not as well executed. The prose does not sparkle and seems rather mundane in many instances.

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