Thursday 31 May 2012

The Life Of Rebecca Jones - Angharad Price

'still waters'

I am a fan of translated fiction, my reading having been dominated for so long by English and American writers; and I believe that there are so many interesting voices out there, so brilliantly translated and so enthusiastically championed by certain publishers that it's the least I can do to try a few of them with little or no knowledge beforehand. Having said all that it was something of a surprise to receive a book from one of those publishers, MacLehose Press, that had been translated from Welsh. A surprise because it is so easy to forget that there are, or used to be, other languages spoken within the British Isles. The Wales Book of the Year Award is one that in part celebrates works written in Welsh. It is one previous winner of the main award, Lloyd Jones, who translated this novel into English after its success in the original Welsh. One thing curiously changed is the title, having been "O!  Tyn y Gorchudd" in Welsh, or "O! pull aside the veil" the name of a hymn written by Hugh Jones who came from the area in which this novel is set, the Maesglasau valley. Angharad Price's family this year celebrate a thousand years living and farming in that valley and this novel is her testament to them. It is a curious mixture of fiction and family history and given that the bulk of what we read is actually true there is a real question as to whether it is really fiction at all. A literary twist at the end is what helps it make its claim as such but for me, as a reading experience, it is far closer to memoir than fiction.

But maybe that's the clever trick. There is plenty of fiction written so convincingly that you can almost see the narrator sat down somewhere writing it all down (I am thinking of another novel defined by its location, The Book of Ebenezer La Page by G B Edwards) and I had something of that feeling, having seen a similar book myself once, when Rebecca describes the one book that she held above all others, given the tangible link it provided to her family's history in the valley.

The most exciting for us was the Book of Common Prayer, for in faded yellow writing on a blank page someone had documented the family tree. It claimed that our family had lived at Tynbraich since 1012. We believed it, and committed to memory every name in the lineage, a catechism of males (except for the proverbial exception): "Gethin, Gruffydd. Llywelyn, Evan, Llywelyn. Elis. William, John Evan, Robert, Robert, Mary Evan, Evan, Robert and Evan Jones. Christ's Year 1012 These are they who owned Tynybraich."

Despite such a long lineage it is her immediate family she will tell us about, starting with her parents before moving on to herself and her siblings. The descriptions of the rural life and landscape are every bit as beautiful as you might expect from a such a nostalgic book but the very specific landscape of Maesglasau also shapes the way in which Rebecca's memories come to her and the language she uses to describe them.

Memories of my childhood reach me in a continuous flow: smells and tastes and sights converging in a surging current. And just like the stream at Maesglasau, these recollections are a product of the landscape in our part of rural mid-Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its familiar bubbling comforts me.
It was not really like that, of course. The flow was halted frequently. Indeed a stream is not the best metaphor for life's irregular flow between one dam and the next.
I have not mentioned the reservoirs. In these the emotions congregate. I approach them with hesitation. I stare into the still waters, fearing their hold on my memories. In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths.
Rebecca is something of a background figure even in the telling of her own story. Her three blind brothers having lead such notable lives are far more in the spotlight, even deserving of a BBC film crew to come to the valley in 1964 in order to document their extraordinary story (two were born blind whilst the other developed his blindness whilst young) and the very divergent paths their lives took, 'Gruffydd an Anglican minister at Little Marcle in Herfordshire; Lewis working as a telephonist with the Ministry of Labour at Nottingham, and William acting as a braille copyist and multilingual editor at Tynybraich.' Rebecca meanwhile lives a life rooted around the family home, eventually finding herself, in 'one of life's astonishing moments', becoming the anchor of the family - 'It holds us secure in a storm. It holds us back in fair weather. It is a blessing and a burden - for the young, especially, and for those who seek freedom.'

This solidity might be part of the reason that I felt for the most part the sensation that this book was washing over me, I found it hard to get really gripped by her as a character, but then there are moments that do leap out at you. The congenital blindness that the family suffers from is just one of their hardships, in an age of infant mortality there are plenty of other children who don't get the chance to live at all; one, Olwen Mai living for only two weeks - 'Even the bluebells lasted longer.' Rebecca briefly becomes very alive with the arrival of an Italian POW into their midst, and we sense some real fire in the belly of this quiet, unmarried woman. In the end though these moments weren't quite enough for me to get nearly as enthusiastic as those who are hailing this book as an instant classic. I couldn't help but think of that novel I mentioned earlier, The Book of Ebenezer La Page by G B Edwards, which truly is a classic and the only way I can clumsily describe the difference between them is that Price's novel is fact written as fiction that feels like fact whereas Edwards manages to write fiction that's so real that it feels not like fact but the hyper-reality that only fiction can achieve.


Max Cairnduff 20 June 2012 at 09:57  

All biography is fiction of course.

I wasn't persuaded by the line about "In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths." Terror? Really? That sounds very literary, perhaps too literary.

Fact written as fiction that feels like fact. Nice line. I finished your review not sure why I'd read this, but it's good it's found its readers and that there are those it's connecting with.

William Rycroft 20 June 2012 at 10:30  

Yup, it didn't quite work for me but I passed it on to a Welsh friend who enjoyed it and is even tempted to read it in the original Welsh to compare and contrast.

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