Culture

Review: A Welsh Quartet: Jon Gower surveys the latest crop of fiction from Wales

07 Mar 2021 17 minutes Read

Jon Gower

The trajectory of the south Walian short story writer Jo Lloyd has been steep and visible every since she won the prestigious BBC Short Story Award in 2019. Her stories have been broadcast by the corporation, of course, and now comes her debut collection, The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies trailing laurels and bouquets of plaudits. And it deserves them all. What it lacks in a catchy title it more than makes up for in sheer deft story telling skill and a communicable delight in language.

She is the mistress of concision, squeezing meaning into a phrase like a virtuoso player palping a piano accordion.

The prize-winning story is also the only one expressly set in Wales. ‘The Invisible’ is inspired by the life of an 18th Century woman from Caernarfonshire called Martha, who claimed to be friends with an invisible family living in an invisible mansion who, of course, welcomed guests from other invisible mansions up and down the land.

It is a story tinged with the sadness of Brexit, arranged around the rifts and chasms of social class – where the rich live lives largely unseen by the wider populace. It is also deliciously unsettling, as doctors come to discuss her sightings with the young woman, and gossip abounds. There are familiar creatures from myth such as the Twrch Trwyth, the wild boar of The Mabinogion, with a pair of scissors lodged in its hair but there are also less well-known folkloric elements such as the belief that when milfyw, or milfoil flowered it was time to read poetry to the cows.

Dazzling

The opening story in the collection, ‘My Bonny’ is simply dazzling and a ticker-tape parade of bright sentences and brisk portraits. It’s a sort of highly compressed family saga about a Scottish fishing community and swiftly gets its hooks into the reader, if you pardon the pun.

Here is Lloyd describing a good vantage point overlooking the harbour where one can watch the boats come and go about their dangerous business:

To see the waves blooming above the breakwater, the tattered sails of spray hanging in the air. The small boats staggering like crane flies, the ships listing and turning, helpless as leaves in a weir. The silent processions winding up the hill.

In the same story a grocery shop owner settles into both old age and a low upholstered chair, where she munches her way through coconout ice, sugared almonds and candied violets so that the ‘sugar draped crystalline, frosty webs across her memory, so that the details of her earlier life softened and receded’ while another woman, Agnes’s heart ‘withered like a rosehip.’

The stories range widely, from following the exploits of a pair of redoubtable lady butterfly collectors in the mountains of the Balkans through an old man’s recollections of the Festival of Britain to a tale of life and love among the dopeheads and sous chefs of a busy restaurant. They all ring true and consistently manage to find the uncommon amongst the mundane.

The final and title story is also a bravura ending, a pulsing, bustling portrait of a greed-driven industrialist called HM who blasts adits and sinks shafts, constructs horse gins and bonds men to his service. And yet, despite the pragmatism and science of the age this driven man still believes that hearing the sound of goblins hammering can lead a man to untapped, underground ore.

As HM sallies forth on horseback to seek such treasure he both scoffs at such superstitions whilst simultaneously believing that, on one occasion, some shepherds, hearing such tapping, managed to guide some miners to a motherlode.

These nine tales, taken together, announce a confident, supremely able writing talent as if a shiny new trumpet has just sounded.

Buy The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies here

The novella is a curious form, poised halfway between the bagginess of the novel and the economies of the short story and probably half as popular as both of them put together. But when you get it right it can offer many satisfactions as the Abergavenny writer Cath Barton proves in spades. Her In the Sweep of the Bay is a sepia-tinted tale of a faded relationship. Imagine Ingmar Bergman’s TV mini-series Scenes from a Marriage or Bernard MacLaverty’s end-of-marriage-chronicle Midwinter Break transposed to the rim of Morecambe Bay and you get a sense of the forlorn lack of love that dances under the surface of the main protagonists’ lives.

Ted and Rene meet in dancehalls such as the Palais in Blackpool. Theirs is a stiff, brief and awkward relationship, in keeping with the stiffness of the times. They subsequently marry in the brief sunshine of post-war optimism and then settle in to ‘their respective roles of provider and housewife.’ They beget two daughters, Peg and Dot, and the bills are paid by Ted’s work in the local ceramics factory where he started his apprenticeship at the age of fifteen.

Here his gifts for decoration not only keep him in work but attract orders from far afield. Ted can’t quite understand it, the way people, such as the writer from Vogue, who arrives at the factory with a photographer in tow, admire his simple art:

‘He used floral designs, but in his own distinctive way, and signed each vase with his initials, EM, in a cursive script. There were people who came to the factory: buyers, ceramics experts, people who wrote about Ted’s designs in the trade press. They used words like Modernist, Innovative and Daring. Ted was amused – he drew the flowers that grew in his garden, the garden that Rene cultivated.’

Suspicion

His work companion, Madge is very close to him and a poison pen letter, coupled with an anonymous phone call, plants seeds of suspicion deep within Rene, not least when she spots her wearing a lovely red coat which she has coveted in one of the local shops, believing it to have been a lover’s gift from her husband.

The story of Ted and Rene’s sadly romance-less life is intercut with attendant tales, from the reminiscences of a streetsweeper who is given the job of looking after the seaside statue of comedian Eric Morecambe – half of the duo Morecambe and Wise – to the tender story of some Italian lovers, who appear in the story after one of Ted’s vases which has been exported out the continent is smashed during a boisterous birthday party.

Times change, as the coalfields close and Ted, now in charge of the firm and responsible for the well-being of the workforce, has to deal with the challenges of Edward Heath’s three- day week and its electricity rationing, as well as the chill economic winds that blew because of the oil crisis. Ted, now at home more than usual, proclaims Rene to be a ‘grand housewife’ as she dishes up the shepherd’s pie and macaroni cheese, completely unaware of the stirrings amongst women in other places at the time.

Meanwhile ‘Ted, poor Ted did not know how to reach the woman he had fallen in love with and still loved, in his own way. So he stopped trying.’ That failure is the ache at, or in the heart of this tender, unfussy but confidently well-told novella, which started life as a flash-fiction and grew in various directions.

Told in prose as clear as the water of Lakeland tarns In the Sweep of the Bay gives us a whole novel’s worth of feelings coupled with the brisk attentiveness on the short story and all skilfully compressed into a hundred pages, snapshots of empty lives arrayed along with picture postcards of happier times. But as Ted and Rene’s daughters find, thumbing some old photos of their parents after they have died, there is still a tracery of happiness which ‘made it easier somehow, to bear their passing, and to carry on themselves, knowing that happiness was always only a memory away.’ A tender and moving account of a marriage.

Buy In the Sweep of the Bay here

When we talk about the writer’s imagination, we sometimes suggest there’s a sliding scale, that some are more ample than others. If that is indeed the case, then writer Matthew G. Rees certainly operates at the upper end of things. In this, his second collection of short stories, he takes the reader into places and worlds that feel familiar but not entirely so.

Things are a little askew, odd, unsettling. Or, as a fellow writer, Guido Eekhaut says of Rees’ gifts, he is able to place ‘banal objects, or characters, in situations where they are at the same time innocent and threatening.’

Throughout Smoke House & Other Stories things are often out of kilter, odd things happen in conventional places. As the author promises in his preface ‘those seeking blood-soaked horror will not find it here. That genre of fiction has never been my line. The supernatural, the strange and the sinister lie much closer to my heart.’

That triad of weirdness is very much in evidence throughout this intriguing collection of 14 tales as Rees conjures up ghostly squadrons of moths, pillories the modern art establishment with its vapid installations and the triumph of celebrity over talent – or simply has oodles of fun.

The title story, for instance, casually introduces a character in the opening line whose nose is on fire. ‘Deadwood’ meanwhile mixes up modern lumberjacking skills with yew trees and the myth of the Green Man, that ancient spirit of forests and woods. In ‘Thirteen’ a Welsh farmer believes that the soul of his farm resides not in the land but in the tractors that have worked it, in a tale which sets old Welsh country ways in conflict with those of the new settlers, recasting in the process R S Thomas’ poem ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor,’ and that heroic figure with ‘nerves of metal’ and his ‘blood oil.’ But the farmer in this tale treats his tractors as fetishes, with rumours that he is sexually attracted to them, that he rides them naked.

Discombobulating

Other literary antecedents breach in a story such as ‘The Glass’ wherein a Russian stained glass repairer called Grigoriev becomes as one with his creations, in a story that nods firmly in the direction of the story of Gregor Samsa and his transmutation into an insect in Franz Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis. And in keeping with the literary tone and bent of the stories they are populated with a cast of characters whose names make for a strange litany, like Dickensian names recast for late Edwardian times or later. Julius Blunt. Davinia Duvall. Simeon Barrymore. Susan Shycroft. There’s a man called Clyst and a birdwatcher called Rinch. Odd names for discombobulating tales.

One of the signal features of the collection is a regard, a reverence even for language. Rees, a former journalist is always very much in control, conjuring up a vivid image – a swatted fly is ‘a sloe-coloured smear’ – or simply getting the story to flow:
‘The combination of the intensity of his work on his manuscript, his self-neglect and the hypothermic shock to his body of his walk onto the frozen moor now rendered Bickersley feverous.

A strange vision beset him, in which a flock of moths hovered above his supine form.
In the manner of small fish in a sunlit sea, the moths shoaled downward and entered him through a cavity in his chest, after which he seemed to hear their wings – beating – in the cage of his ribs.’

One of the tropes of Rees’ debut collection, Keyhole, was a fondness for locating his stories in old houses and this latest volume is not entirely without its creaking piles, such as Minchbury Manor in the story ‘Clippings.’ Here, the gardener, who has worked there for fifty years, deals nervously with the arrival of a new squire in a story which manages to marry the unlikely bedfellows of topiary and tragedy and invoke notions of voodoo dolls as the gardener, Harry Blench uses his shears to seemingly lop off parts of the new owner’s anatomy.

But Smoke House & Other Stories still enjoys buildings as a backdrop to the action but this time it’s a wider range – birdwatching hides, old churches where people do brass rubbing, a small cathedral in a depleted Russian village and the town hall of Skelmere Junction in the north of England, where there’s trouble brewing about the Christmas lights. ‘Smoke House’ even takes us to a strange charcoal-burning oven in the boondocks of Americas, where the mysterious Mrs Root has powers to deal with pain and to banish erectile disfunction.

These places are all conjured up with the brio and gusto which typify the work of this highly accomplished practitioner of the short story form. He peoples his tales with characters who are both larger than life and brim-full of complexities, so that the book fair teems with them, collectively becoming a bustling, boisterous account of human oddities and frailties, vivid dreams and dismantling obsessions. The reader never know where he’s going to be taken next as one story yields to the next but feels that this doesn’t matter as he knows he’s in very safe hands. For Rees is an incredibly confident deviser of narrative. This second engaging and darkly amusing collection certainly offers plentiful evidence of oddball, quirky and very compelling storytelling skill.

Buy Smoke House & Other Stories here

It may be that the ultimate consequence of loving Russian literature with unbridled passion is to sit down to write some yourself, and that certainly seems to be the case with Swansea writer Alan Bilton’s third novel.

The End of the Yellow House is a novel studded with references to authors such as Dostoevsky, Gogol and Nikolai Chernyshevsky and shot through with apposite quotes from the likes of Gorky, who suggested that ‘A scratch lights up an empty face.’ But the presiding spirit of this completely inventive and compelling tale is probably Mikhail Bulgakov, whose fine novel The White Guard chronicles the same chaotic period of Russian civil war when marauding factions crossed a cloying countryside where the mud lay thigh-deep.

The eponymous Yellow House is a santorium, set in the black earth forest of Central Russia, complete with a network of connecting tunnels, in keeping with the conventions of murder mystery. This pertains to the chief superintendent, a corpolent man, who is found brutally murdered, his head wedged in a mysterious box of a contraption.

Solving the murder requires the services of a police inspector, a bumbling man called Tutyshkin, whose powers of detection are pretty scant. He may not be a policeman after all, but rather the notorious murderer Sikorsky who was on his way to the Yellow House under armed guard.

Identity is a pretty tentative thing throughout the book, which has the pace and spirited tone of quick-fire farce, but darkly leavened with Grand Guignol and tragedy and threatening noises off.

Anyone who’s read Bilton’s other works knows that he is at heart a comic writer, but here he walks a tense tightrope strung between comedy and tragedy and does so with a deft and steady sense of balance. The very fact of a policeman spending lots of time investigating a single crime when there are bodies lying all around, dangling from nooses or casually abandoned in the dank countryside is itself funny, if darkly so.

Juggernaut

There are also plenty of excellent one liners as this wild juggernaut of a novel careers its way along, sploshing mud and blood and tension as it goes. Even when the recurring subject of Russian-ness rears its head, there are touches of typical Biltonish, or Biltovian humour:

“When you can buy hand-grenades at the market but not meat, it’s a sign that civilization has fallen apart,” said Radek. “As for the alcohol: the Reds drunk it all as soon as they nationalised the liquor stores. Russia is an Asiatic country, primitive and backward. Though the Germans failed, Western troops will soon march in – and a good thing too. The Enlightenment never caught on here – what a Russian likes is destroying things, Our greatest military achievement was to burn down Moscow. Give a Russian an axe and he’ll plant it in his neighbour’s head.”

That Russian propensity for self-destruction is very much on display in the Yellow House, as it depicts a tested people in the throes of a civil war: “God had made them after all, just as he had planted thistles and nettles amongst the crop.” People such as the yardman Nikolai stumbles straight out of central casting in a vodka haze, while some of the other characters drink buckets of grain alcohol, plum brandy or, at a real push, eau de cologne,or anything else with a dab of alcohol about it. There are desperate tramps, lost in the rain-sodden landscape, looking for bread. And the Bolsheviks who may not be able “to make the poor any less miserable then at least they can make the rich more miserable still.”

Alan Bilton has in the past consistently wielded a surrealist’s palette in his work but this time there is only one truly surreal touch, namely the slow, disgusting morphing of the dead chief superintendent’s body over the course of the book, finally transmogrifying into a bloated, suppurating sea-monster of a thing.

Surrealism

This lack of Bilton’s hallmark surrealism has much to do with the fact that this period in Russian history was as weird as can be, when the realities of life had a consistently nightmarish quality. This is very much evident in the dark experiments conducted on soldiers in the Yellow House, where their blood is siphoned off to be replaced by transfusions of blood infected by rat bite fever leading to zombifying changes.

It’s there too in the blood-bespattered candlestick which come to light, a murder weapon that reminds us that looking for murderers in a rambling old house is always a form of ‘Cluedo.’

With a sprawling cast of characters – not to mention a psychotic cat with a voracious need for blood and some very long suffering horses –The Yellow House throws open its doors to reveal the workings of a novelist with a boldness of invention to match the degree with which he is in thrall to ideas – about Russia and madness at a time when the old ways, the pagan beliefs of the peasantry, were about to be edged out by Marxism-Leninism.

It’s a book with a very tender and satisfying ending, slowing the whole thing down to a single vivid and memorable scene which the novelist says he had in his mind even before he started to write the rest of it. It’s a finely wrought novel which chronicles one of the huge ruptures in Russian history by concentrating on the inhabitants of just one house, listing their dreams and dilemmas. It’s all told at a real narrative lick and with the gusto of a writer really enjoying himself as he breathes life into individual characters only to then marshall them together and lead them to their inevitable and collective doom. Because, in a sense, at the end of any novel, all the characters must die.

Buy The End of the Yellow House here

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