The latest addition to my website is Russell Celyn Jone‘ Ten Seconds From The Sun. The novel is narrated by Ray Greenland a river boat pilot, happily married to Lily with two children. However, Ray Greenland is really Mark Swain, who was convicted of a brutal murder when he was twelve. He served his time, received pilot training, did his probation and became a free man. However, before he married, had children and travelled abroad, he was obliged to notify the authorities. He did not. He now leads a happy life, only slightly worried that he will be identified – people often think they know him but not from where. He has a cover story, based on his probation officer’s life but when people question him about his childhood, he suddenly has to invent details or claim forgetfulness. The real worry is if someone from his past reappears and, inevitably, that is what happens. What makes this book interesting is that we see his story entirely from his perspective rather than from the perspective of his new or past family. He is somewhat remorseful but more concerned about his future than his past and he has a violent streak but just about manages to control it but when his past comes back and threatens to destroy his idyll, things take a different turn.
The latest addition to my website is Russell Celyn Jones‘ An Interference of Light. This novel tells two stories: one set in 1937-39 and one in 1959, both taking place in Sharon, a Welsh slate-quarrying community. It is narrated by Aaron Lewis, whose parents were from the Sharon area but who emigrated to the United States, where Aaron was born and bred. He works for the Pinkerton agency, spying on the quarrymen to see their secret technique for determining the best quality slate. When a strike break out, he continues to report to the owner, Lord Elusen, all the while lodging with a family of strikers and being somewhat sympathetic towards them, particularly Paul Gravano, one of the strike leaders, while betraying them. Concurrently, we follow the story twenty years later, when Aaron returns and finds the town desolate and Paul a widower. Aaron becomes close to Granmor, Paul’s only son but learns that the effects of the strike are still felt.
The latest addition to my website is Kate Roberts‘ Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu (The Living Sleep; later: The Awakening). This is a feminist novel, telling the story of Lora Ffennig, who learns one day that her husband has left her, stolen her nest egg and stolen from his employer, and run off with a another woman, abandoning Lora and their two children, a boy and a girl. The story is about the fall-out for Lora from this. While the community is initially sympathetic, they condemn her when Aleth Meurig, the local solicitor and former employee of both Lora’s husband and his lady friend, starts calling frequently, even though he only does so when she is not alone. Lora struggles with her own concerns, the reactions of others, the view of the community, her sister, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, her children and simply trying to get her life back on track. It is a fine novel, well known in Wales but which should better known outside Wales.
The latest addition to my website is Kate Roberts‘ Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet in Chains). Kate Roberts was one of the foremost Welsh-language novelists and this is her first full-length novel. Like Roberts’ father, Ifan Gruffydd works in a slate quarry. At the beginning of the novel, in 1880, he has just married Jane. They will go on to have six children, three of each, but they will struggle. The slate quarries are in difficulty and the owners are eager to exploit the workers to the maximum, so that Ifan’s wages go down during the course of the book. Jane has to work hard, with no mod cons, struggles with her mother-in-law, has to help her two sons who go to college, deal with a difficult daughter and, eventually, see her children move away. The book ends in the middle of World War I, with one son already having joined up. During the thirty-five years of the book, Jane has few happy moments. Roberts shows us the grim life and struggles of the slate quarry workers of North Wales of the time, something she presumably had to put up with some degree herself.
The latest addition to my website is Dannie Abse‘s Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve. Dannie Abse died last week, aged ninety-one. He was best-known as a poet but he also produced some prose works, including a few novels, of which this, very much an autobiographical novel, is the first. It tells of his life from 1934 (when he was eleven) to five years later, soon after World War II started. it is not flowery and poetical as we might expect from a poet but full of sharp observations of the people around him, particularly some of his relatives. His family is Jewish but this does not appear to be much of an issue for him. Indeed, as he tells his friend, the main difference is that the Jews pray on Saturday, instead of Sunday. They are, of course, very much aware of what is happening in Nazi Germany and young Dannie has this fantasy about a young Polish Jew who goes to the German Embassy in Paris to assassinate the German ambassador. However, most of the book is about growing up, from fighting other boys to first encounter with the opposite sex, both of which come with their own problems. It is a very lively account and very enjoyable picture of his early life, even if its perhap more autobiography and less novel. The title, by the way, comes from T S Eliot’s Little Giddings.
The latest addition to my website is T. Rowland Hughes‘ Chwalfa (Out of Their Night). Hughes was an educationalist but, when he developed multiple sclerosis, started writing seriously, and wrote several novels, mainly concerned with life in the Welsh slate quarries, a play and a radio play, as well as poetry. This novel is about a long drawn-out strike in the slate quarries and the profound effect the strike has on the local community. We mainly follow the Evans family, with the father, Edward, very much involved in the strike. His two younger sons want to help but one eventually runs away to sea and the other suffers from ill health. The daughter, Megan, marries a scoundrel and the couple live with Edward and his wife, Martha, till the son-in-law, Ivor, commits what Edward sees as a betrayal, and becomes a traitor, i.e. returns to work while the strike is still on. Gradually, though, many of the men do return to work, while others drift away, quite a few go to the Rhondda Valley, to get jobs in coal mining. There is no real plot, except for the development of the strike. Rather, it is a portrait of a community that is broken up by the strike, a strike for which the author feels complete sympathy and, as such, works very well.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘ Outside the House of Baal. This is what Humphreys calls a long novel,not only in number of words but also because it covers a long(-ish) time span, namely from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. It tells the story of two families who see many changes in Wales, cultural, economic and political. In particular, we see many of these changes through the eyes of J T. Miles, a left-wing pastor, who is a pacifist and very much concerned with the economic circumstances of his flock and endeavours to work hard to improve them, often at the expense of and to the disgust of his family. He is, of course, fighting a losing battle, as the Great Depression and later the closure of the mines leads to mass poverty and mass emigration. Indeed, the man whom he partially blames for this trend is a Welsh-speaking Welshman, Lloyd George. It is an excellent novel of Wales and deserves to be better-known. It is now back in print with the wonderful Seren Books.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘ A Toy Epic. It is a relatively short novel that tells the story of three boys in 1930s Wales who know one another but who come from different backgrounds. It is told through the thoughts and points of view of each of the boys as they struggle with their own particular issues, often filtered through the influence of their background and upbringing. One is from a working class family, who lives in a council house and whose father is a bus driver; one is the son of a vicar and the third is the son of farmer, from a very religious family. They end up at the same school, where all three obtained scholarships, and have mixed success at school and with the issues they face – sex, education and prospective career, parents, religion and politics. As usual with Humphreys, it is told in a somewhat poetical style and, though short, works well.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘s A Man’s Estate. It tells the story of a small village (and one man who has left the village when a baby) and how the activities of all of them affect all the others. Philip Elis was given up at birth by his mother to his aunt (and late father’s mistress), as his mother was so bitter about her late husband’s behaviour (mistresses, illegitimate child) that she wanted nothing to do with her newly born son. However, the farm on which his mother lives with her second husband and daughter from her first marriage is, technically, Philip’s. He needs the money so he is off to Wales to meet his mother, daughter, and stepfather for the first time. However, most of the novel concerns the inhabitants of the village and the many issues they seem to face and have faced, leading to a general crisis. It is certainly a gloomy novel, full of guilt, revenge and bitterness, but very well told.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘ The Little Kingdom. Wales has not fared as well as, for example, Scotland, in recognition of its literature in recent years, despite a thriving Welsh-language publishing industry with some of its output translated into English. Humphreys is still alive at the time of writing, almost ninety-four, but his best-known novels were written before 1970. He was a committed Welsh nationalist and Christian and these traits can be seen in this novel. It is the story of a young man who is a fervent nationalist but moves away from Christianity and gets carried away by his own arrogance and self-importance, as he and his friends and associates fight the construction of a new aerodrome, much of it built on his uncle’s land. For a first novel it is an excellent work though, sadly, long since out of print.