Book Review: The South Westerlies

“the land was in her blood”

The South Westerlies, by Jane Fraser, is a collection of eighteen short stories mostly set in and around the Gower area of South Wales. The land is depicted as windswept and often damp. Family roots run deep although some branches long for an escape.

Each tale stands alone yet there are suggestions that the cast of characters interweaves. Many in the community have familiar names. Places feature in numerous tales.

The farming families have tended the land for generations. Young men who take on their father’s farms look for wives who, like their mothers, will have dinner on the table at a set time whilst raising sons to ensure a continuum.

“Gower born and Gower bred
Strong of arm and good in bed”

The farmers’ teenage daughters accept as husbands the sons of neighbouring farmers – those suggested by their parents. They feel complimented when described as “good breeding stock”. They consider with satisfaction the agricultural acres joined by such marriages. Later in life these women ponder their lot. Stories included tell of widows who do not mourn the loss of husbands who demanded that they “put up and shut up”.

Other stories introduce young people who left the area to build lives elsewhere. They return to visit embittered parents, still critical of the strengths shown that enabled their offspring’s escape. School friends who stayed – met up with again after many years – conjure memories and thoughts of what might have been. Severing from a root may not eradicate it.

There is much grief in the tales: longed for children who were never born; children lost young whose shadows forever weaken sunbeams of happiness.

Within families there is blame and resentment. Men try to control wifely behaviour. Parents complain of their grown children’s choices and distance. Friends ponder what they have missed by letting time drift.

In Look What the Wind’s Blown In a young couple try to help an increasingly infirm elderly parent. The old man wants his daughter-in-law to look after him as his wife once did. When more practical alternatives are offered there is an impasse.

In Search of the Perfect Wave introduces a surfer’s consuming need to chase the perfect wave. In this and other stories, unhappiness exists when a character cannot find the strength to insist that their needs are considered. Desires are individual and rarely transferable.

This is the Boat that Dad Built is a moving account of a family man who tries his best and, for one summer, succeeds. It offers a reminder that happiness is hard to bestow without willing acceptance from a recipient. Individuals cannot be all things to all people.

The stories are often bleak yet the sense of place evoked is one of dark beauty and an innate affinity. The writing is polished but also affecting with each story harbouring nuance and depth. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

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Random Musings: Wanders in Wales

There won’t be the usual number of book reviews on my blog in the second half of this month as I have several trips away from home planned. This weekend I am heading north, to Appleby for some walking and then on to Edinburgh to clear elder son’s uni accommodation for the summer. Earlier this week I was on an unexpected short break. Husband is between contracts and my head has been all over the place so I was grateful when he whisked me away to Wales. I was kept so busy, in the best possible way, that I didn’t find time to read even a single page of the books I had brought. Thus I am behind on my reading but feeling much more settled in myself.

Wales was quite the adventure. Wall to wall sunshine meant we could plan long walks involving many ascents – exercise is my way of finding balance when life proves wobbly. Here are just a few of the more memorable moments from the trip, along with some pictures from what turned out to be rather special accommodation.

Day 1

After a challenging climb to a summit – worth it for the views – we set off for our hotel. We do not own a Sat Nav so use Google Maps for real time directions. Reasons unknown, the app decided we were not staying in a hotel but rather on a working farm, accessed by the sort of narrow tracks where you can only hope you don’t meet another vehicle. We were travelling in my husbands shiny two-seater which he enjoyed driving along the many winding Welsh roads. It is not so much fun when sent off piste. When we eventually drove past the farm entrance, Google advised a 3-point turn before the track became footpath. We spotted a gate and hoped for sufficient traction from the packed mud entrance.

Day 2

After the previous day’s navigation debacle we set off on foot from our hotel. Following a footpath through numerous fields we encountered a ruin that husband paused to photograph. I noticed a group of mixed cattle eyeing us. I am very afraid of cattle – the bane of many walks. A few of the youngsters started to move in our direction. Others followed. The whole herd then started to stampede towards the open gate that separated their field from ours. Now moving swiftly we passed through the gate into the next field on our route. The herd paused, watching, and then continued at speed along the boundary. I had no idea if they knew of a way through but it was clear they wished to reach us. I covered three fields of steep ascent at an impressive rate.

On reaching the boundary of farmland and moor we spotted the monument marking the start of the trail we planned to walk. There was a sign on the other side of the gate informing us that this area is an artillery training ground and entry is strictly forbidden without permission. The sign informed us that military debris, if touched, may explode and kill you. We heard firing in the distance.

While I balanced the dangers in my head – trampled by cattle if we turned back or risk of death by exploding military debris if we continued – husband contemplated different words on the sign: ‘without permission’. He phoned the MOD. Having given our location and proposed route we were assured the live firing was not in our area and we could safely proceed. We walked a pleasant, scenic trail along moorland ridge to the soundtrack of bleating sheep and exploding shells.

Day 3

After the previous day’s encounter with cattle we planned a route that took us up onto the moor via tracks and hedged in footpaths, returning via tracks and quiet lanes. The moor, however, proved more challenging to navigate. Each marker we aimed for – a trig point, lake, stream to descend by – was criss-crossed by sheep tracks rather than obvious paths. Being moorland, sections were boggy and impassable.

We took several wrong turns and had to climb up to find the correct direction. Wiltshire, where I normally walk, did not provide the training for these repeated ascents. When we eventually found our way off the moor it was with a grand sense of achievement – just what my head needed.

R&R

I mentioned our special accommodation. Husband found Lake Country House Hotel via a last minute offer on Secret Escapes. After a day’s walking it was lovely to relax with a stroll through the extensive grounds abutting river and woodland before a cooling swim in the pool. Refreshing drinks were imbibed followed by dinners as good as we’ve eaten anywhere. It is a place we hope to return to one day.

 

We were in a Lodge Suite, located in a separate building beside the main hotel. Our room was enormous – far bigger than we needed given the fine weather. Little touches such as fresh fruit, shortbread rounds and a good variety of teas were appreciated.

   

 

There were also books for those who forget to pack any. I wished I had thought to bring some titles I have finished with to add to this collection.

Memorable adventures require moments of crisis to add interest to recollections. I could have done without the encounter with stampeding cattle but the rest of our trip was a blast; thankfully not literally.

If interested in further photos (I know, but someone may), check out my Instagram here: neverimitate.

Book Review: The Life of Almost

“how do you tell, when you come from a storied landscape, what is alive and what is dead? What is really there and what was only intended, presumed spoken into being? Can you tell?”

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaught, is the story of a storyteller. It is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, the landscape presented as a living, breathing influence on residents whose hearts and histories are intricately bound to the place where they were made.

The storyteller is a young man named Almost Llewhellin. He begins by introducing his cast, the bulk of whom are wider family members, many of them dead. His story is populated by unhappy families, infidelities, cruel mothers and damaged children. It opens with Almost briefly escaping the confines of the home he shares with his brutal sister to find comfort by the sea.

Almost has mermaid friends who can shed their sea garb to explore the land and spy on its inhabitants. He is besotted with Seren, the adopted daughter of his wealthy benefactor, who treats him with disdain. Almost takes an apprenticeship with the local undertaker – there are detailed descriptions of how to prepare a body for burial. Attitudes towards and treatment of the dead are recurring themes.

“Death in life and life in death”

The story is of those who went before and who continue to shape the living. Almost comes to understand why each family member behaved as they did. There are the missing, the murdered, the mute who still exert influence. There are unexplained forces that could be used for good or evil.

Almost travels to London, tries to settle in Wiltshire, but is drawn back to Pembrokeshire and his tangled heritage. The puzzle of his links to each cast member is revealed, the reader invited to consider what truth may mean.

“To be sure closes doors”

The garb of the mermaids could be the vitality of young women, a lure that must then be shed to pacify their controlling men. The direction Almost chooses for himself could be a demonstration that even the most difficult start in life need not lead to perpetual anger – with the damage this can wreak.

Set in contemporary times, the narrative brought to mind Shakespearean soliloquies albeit peppered with Welsh vernacular. It took me some time to engage with the language and form which has a dream like quality and poetic repetition. There are numerous literary quotations and references, most of which I could not place.

I read about a third of the book – my copy is 160 pages – before becoming engrossed and wanting to know what happened next. The world conjured has a mythic quality, the story a dark beauty. Having finished, its impact lingers.

“Who am I? Did you make me, or am I really just so?”

Although dealing largely with death there is a playfulness in the telling, an invitation to accept possibilities and rise above expectations. For readers open to a story that may not be quite what it first seems, this is a beguiling, ultimately satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press. 

Book Review: Not Thomas

Not Thomas, by Sara Gethin, is told from the point of view of five year old Tomos, who lives with Mammy and Brick in Wales. Mammy and Tomos used to live with Nanno and Dat, and Tomos misses them a lot. Nanno fed him good food and wrote him letters. Dat made him a train table that he still plays with even though the trains have been taken away. Nanno and Dat’s house was filled with stories and songs; now Tomos spends much of his time alone. He knows he mustn’t open the door when Mammy isn’t there so when the lady comes knocking, or the man with the web tattoo, he hides behind the big chair and waits for them to go away.

Tomos likes his teacher at the school he attends since the move. Miss is kind and smells nice, unlike the people who frequent his home. Miss shares her lunch with Tomos when her husband has made her too much, telling him that he is being helpful. The other children tell him he is stinky. Mammy calls him Stupid Boy.

Sometimes Tomos has fish fingers for tea but often all he can find in the cupboards are crisps. He likes the food at school and takes seconds when offered. His new friend, Wes, tells him school dinners are yucky and he should bring a packed lunch. Wes also tells Tomos about the DVDs his uncle watches. He enjoys putting thoughts into Tomos’s head that give him nightmares, and then running away.

The reader experiences Tomos’s life through his eyes whilst understanding the aspects that a five year old child cannot comprehend. The hunger, cold and neglect he suffers are harsh enough but the more immediate dangers he is subjected to when Brick’s associates visit make this a tense read. Tomos is known by social services to be at risk. Their stretched resources and need for proof before intervening are starkly portrayed.

Set in a small community where residents have grown up together, sometimes in equally challenging circumstances, there are memories of how people were before the drugs and alcohol took hold. Loyalties and a desire to protect their own lead to difficult choices, with outcomes that may be causing more damage than good. Old at nineteen, Mammy has already made accusations to get what she wants, using her son as leverage. Trying to help Tomos risks reputations as well as hard won careers.

The author has captured the inner voice of the child whilst retaining the flow of an adult story. Although incidents of extreme violence are graphically depicted there is no sensationalism.

The possibility of other life choices in a neighbourhood rife with hardship is touched upon, effectively lifting a narrative that could have become overwhelmingly bleak. The author writes with compassion and empathy but also practicality. There is nothing mawkish about this tale.

This is the human face of contemporary child poverty where the kindness of others, the refusal to look away, can make the difference between life and death. A difficult subject woven into a darkly engaging story. A recommended read.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Honno.

 

Not Thomas has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Amulet

amulet

Amulet, by Alison Thomas, is a fantasy adventure story aimed at pre-teen independent readers. Its protagonists are a brother and sister who climb down a well in their garden and discover an alternative land where men have been banished underground and the Land of Light is ruled by a family of unusually tall, pale skinned women. There are fierce flying wolves, a vegetarian dragon and a sunken city. Everyone speaks with a Welsh accent.

I didn’t fully tune into the book until I realised that the author was writing it as if written by the children themselves. Alternative chapters are penned by the girl, Megan, and her brother, Dion. The latter is autistic and his ‘corrections’ to the story that his sister is creating offer insight into the world from the perspective of a child on the spectrum.

Their story is of two journeys. Dion is taken through the air to the Land of Light where he explores a magical palace and is introduced to the ruling family who promise to explain why he too is pale skinned. His desire for information helps him to cope with the discomfort he feels at the change to his routine.

Megan enters the well separately and travels underground with her best friend Harriet, her grandfather and a band of small men. They are trying to reach Dion before his imminent birthday in order to rescue him from an unspecified danger.

Both journeys take the children through experiences which reflect the sorts of places parents take their offspring for holidays or days out. These are augmented with elements from stories they may have read or watched on TV. Transport involves vehicles of the sort found in theme parks; Megan’s group travel through a mine; refreshments are taken in a cafe that offers food the girls are unfamiliar with and therefore suspicious of; creatures emerge from wardrobes in strange bedrooms.

Within the palace doors lead to whichever room the person entering wishes to go, meaning they may only go somewhere they have already been and can therefore picture. This book seemed to be written in a similar way. The children wove their adventure around that which they knew.

Naturally both children wish to be the hero of the tale. There is bickering but also the admittance of care. I could picture them constructing the story together.

An unusual tale that gently explores family dynamics and the relationship between siblings when one has special needs. As an adult it is hard for me to know what a child would think of a story written as if by a child, whether this would help them to relate to the protagonists. The contributions by Dion could lead to useful discussions around how best to interact with an autistic peer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.