The Jeweller, by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies), tells the story of Mari, a middle-aged woman living in a ‘lonely little cottage above the sea’ near an unnamed town in Wales. Mari keeps a pet monkey, Nanw, in a cage on the deep set window ledge of her bedroom. The cottage is packed full of vintage clothing, jewellery and other people’s memorabilia, much of which Mari sells at her market stall, now threatened with closure for redevelopment. She collects other people’s photographs and letters, recreating the lives of those featured in her head. Her own past is coloured by her beginnings which are slowly revealed.
Mari has a good friend at the market, Mo, who, with her husband, Dai, clears the houses of the dead. Mari will sometimes go along for the company. Mo looks out for Mari when she is under the weather. Mari suffers migraines and other debilitating conditions from time to time. Mari is also fond of another market seller, Dafydd, but their relationship is complex.
The story is character driven, unfolding in spare prose around a swirling vortex of shadows, past hurts and blame. There are rich descriptions of place. Within this, the characters are portrayed with sympathy although each carry flaws. Depths are glimpsed but in tantalising opacity.
A haunting darkness pervades the text. Mari’s life is cluttered not just by physical objects but also longing and regret. She is afraid of the sea. She is afraid of how others regard her following a tragedy for which she harbours a degree of liability.
Each short chapter offers clues and reveals as the year in which the story is set moves through the seasons. We learn of Mari’s troubled relationship with her late father, a much loved local vicar. We learn why Mari is so intrigued by strangers’ letters. The penultimate chapters provide the final puzzle pieces although the reader is left to decide how certain aspects fit together. When dealing with the past not every question can be answered. The intersection of lives create unforeseen ripples.
This is a story that will offer more on rereading. It is not difficult but offers many layers. A study of grief and the weight of longing for what might have been. An evocative, poignant read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Honno.