Book review: Of Talons and Teeth by Niall Griffiths
Eric Ngalle Charles
In the novel Of Talons and Teeth the author bites, packs lower and upper cut punches and fills the work with magical writing moments. However, this is not where I am going to start.
Niall writes like an oracle, the sermon on the mount; he sucks you into the story in wavelike motions, bouncing back and forth, seeing the world through the eyes of a master storyteller, and before you know it, you meet Ianto. I developed a soft spot for Ianto.
A conversation between a mother and a son drip feeds us into the bleakness that Niall is lamenting: the barren rivers, no croaking frogs, or fish. It sounds like the river Taff as it meanders between the Principality Stadium and Riverside.
However, in this despair, a young Ianto imagines a future full of dreams floating downstream.
“We are all hungry.’’
Moral decay is seen through a collapsed church constructed with worm-infested wood, suitable for a pot fire but not to as the house of God.
We follow a conversation between Lloyd and a much-ado-about-nothing preacher lording his flock and the church with an iron fist.
“A blessing it is that the storm winds brought it down in darkness and not on the heads of my flocks or brains it is you would be sweeping amongst this shattered tiling.’’
I gasped when the preacher in majestic grandiose suggested we enlist birds as roof workers instead. Or better still, angels. What a pecking order, I thought.
If there is one person Lloyd despises more than the preacher, it is Sir Herbert; and they must prepare the church for his impending visit.
We can see inside Lloyd’s throat, through into his stomach, to the point that we want to see him cough and spit out the church decay. It comes as a relief when the preacher leaves, then Lloyd cleanses his throat, regurgitates, and spits “a mollusc in the direction of the preacher’s exit.’’
I will spare you the details of what unfolds as he unleashes a vitriolic attack against the church, the preacher, and the soon-to-visit Sir Herbert.
There is an irony in Ianto smiling, even as his world, like the porous church roof, is falling apart. Lloyd’s world is stressful and void of fun, and this is not lost when talking with Catherine, he says, “Christ, you would bore a mule.’’
Their miserly existence is brought to life when Ianto hands over a parcel to his mother; she opens it and looks inside.
“A mouse, is it?’’ She says, “Or are these rabbits shrinking?’’
As the novel meanders, we are exposed to the bleakness of working conditions in the pits. The daily grind. Workers described as “bandy and overworked ass.’’
So much so that, to prove his identity to Lloyd, who was in active search of a Llewellyn Williams, a worker “wipes his face with his sleeve as if to remove a mask.’’
Once he wipes the black stain and soot masquerading his face, he says, “Been below I have, as you can see.’’
Where the common people gather to let off steam, a Dic Bach always postpones his payment one week later. A figure holds a fighting cock under their arm, and a swirly-eyed man strokes the feathers with an admiring knuckle.
Here, Niall zooms in, and we can see the various characters indulging in shady deals and accepting under-the-table gifts. A gradual buildup starts to feel like we are led into a cockerel’s fight club, and it gets better, but I will save it until you read the book.
“Reading, like writing, is a creative act,’’ says the Nigerian-British poet and writer Ben Okri. In this sense, Niall employs language as a creative river, soothing the reader’s mind.
Though predominantly written in English, the novel weaves in Welsh, D’iawn Ianto, Wenglish, “safe you are now,’’ and French. I did not know the Welsh allowed the French to work their mines. Especially after they attempted to take over Wales, invading via Fishguard. I was waiting for Niall to say the drunken Frenchman.
In the ensuing dialogue, Niall plays with language, spicing and diversifying characters. “Where is he?’’ “Je ne sais pas.’’ “In English, man.’’
Why should a French be commanded to speak English in Wales? Please read the dialogue as I did; you will laugh and drop your coffee.
Detailed. “Two women on the riverbank, little grown out of girlhood. Booted and be-shawled.’’ Our curiosity follows as one of them dips their “pale chilblained feet into the water.’’
Ianto goes underground. “Against a circle of light Ianto is spread like a four-pointed star.’’ We hold our breath as we watch him being lowered into the ground. “I cannot see. There’s no light.’’ Ianto’s voice echoes in the tunnel. And we plunder into the shadowy world Niall creates. “Feel around! See by touch!’’
“Sir Herbert’s belly is a bulge stained and sticky with leaves and crumbs.”
This is not surprising as we learn that in the meeting with Lloyd, he sat quietly for ten minutes, gorging through platefuls of chicken, gnawing of bones, gnashing of teeth; this against the backdrop of a tiny chicken that looks like a mouse that Ianto hands to Catherine in the opening chapter of the novel.
There’s a veil of cruelty in this novel. “Wolf took his mate some weeks ago, and yet he seeks her still.’’ The barbarity of aiming a flintlock ball at the wolf, obliterating its ear. An inch lower, the cur’s brain would have decorated the lawn.
Between the characters Lloyd, Ianto, Catherine, the preacher, Mari, Morag, Dic Bach, and the missing Llewellyn Williams, Niall has painted a society that mirrors our reflections. The wealth enjoyed by the church, the gatekeepers, the plight of miners, the daily grind for survival and moral decadence.
The novel’s end sounds apocalyptic, “The mountains are moved, the lakes too. The sea is scored by ships, and things spin, crumbling into a jumble of tatty bones in the bottom of a cage before human skin has been utterly erased.
I love the novel, as Niall makes the mundane magical. Be patient; the novel starts slowly as Niall introduces the reader to different characters. It picks up speed and is a work that can be read in one sitting.
It was a battle for me, as my one-year-old wanted me to read the novel aloud. She must have enjoyed it. Whenever she sees me reading, she stares and mumbles something like, “Diolch, Papa,’’ and runs to her mother.
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