Review: Capten by Meinir Pierce Jones
‘When one thing comes to an end, something else must, by necessity, begin. Like wave after wave on the beach.’
This quote, taken from the cover of Meinir Pierce Jones’ historical novel, which won this year’s Daniel Owen Memorial Prize at the National Eisteddfod, sums up Capten rather aptly.
It’s a novel about beginnings and endings, opportunities missed and embraced. A novel which yields its characters’ secrets, ambitions and fears to the reader as gently as an ebbing tide yields washed-up shells and seaweed to the sand.
Capten is a fictionalized family history, based on writings and tales of Meinir’s ‘Ffridd family’ as shared by her Aunt Nellie.
Meinir Pierce Jones seamlessly weaves together fact and fiction, drawing on oral histories, preserved documents, thorough historical research and her own imagination to create one of the most vividly engaging novels I’ve read in a long time.
Choosing to base her novel on the members of a real seafaring community no doubt posed a challenge, denying Meinir Pierce Jones the use of many of the convenient plot techniques favoured by fiction writers.
The inability to summon up a convenient Deus ex Machina to resolve loose ends, or to inject some extra tension with an unexpected plot twist would no doubt have caused lesser writers to founder; but Meinir Pierce Jones steers a smooth passage through the intricacies of nautical and farming life and the complex web of relationships in a small, rural community.
She possesses an instinctive knack for knowing when to scan the horizon and when to hoist anchor, leaving the reader desperate to know what happens next. Once or twice, I audibly gasped or found myself scowling at the text in indignation.
Meinir Pierce Jones’ writing style is one of the greatest delights of the novel. She has an unerring knack for showing rather than telling the reader, leaving us to decipher or ponder the character’s actions and choices. Elin, the novel’s protagonist, is by nature stoic, gentle and reserved.
Even when the reader can hear her innermost thoughts, there is a definite emotional distance between main character and reader; but her small gestures, such as the ‘redistribution’ of an egg to an impoverished widow or sending a message across the sea to a female New Zealand politician, tells us a great deal about about her sympathies, fears, hopes and ideals.
Much of the communication in Capten is non-verbal, and beautifully observed.
The author picks out the details which bring the characters and their community to life so deftly that the reader finds themselves standing alongside Elin, watching the outline of the mountains appear in the dawn light, or inhaling tobacco smoke on the deck of an old schooner.
Capten is one of those rare joys – a novel so alive that from its very first page we find ourselves inhabiting the novel, enjoying the years we spend alongside its characters.
Set towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign during the years 1893 – 95, Capten tells the story of a newly-married couple, Elin and John Jones of Glan Deufor, and also the tribulations of their family and neighbours living in a small seafaring community on the Llŷn peninsula.
At the beginning of the novel John is away at sea, acting as First Mate on a lengthy and dangerous voyage to Boston and onwards to Manilla.
Elin is left in Wales, opening the marital home to visitors from England during the summer months to help make ends meet, supporting her family and struggling neighbours such as impoverished widow Lydia Catrin and her tomboy daughter Adi.
But this busy, seemingly undramatic existence and Elin’s role as a dutiful Victorian housewife conceals strong undercurrents, and each chapter seems to yield another concealed secret, unspoken anxiety or carefully repressed source of discontent, all of which come to loom like storm clouds on the horizon.
Things improve for Elin when she receives news that her husband’s ship has docked safely and he is waiting for her to join him in port in the United States. In a scene which will no doubt be familiar to many young wives, Elin is torn between her duty as a daughter and duty as a wife, but she makes her choice and sails out of Liverpool on a steam ship to join her husband and enjoys a brief, belated honeymoon in New York.
Together, they take in the sights and sounds and flavours of the city, celebrating John’s unexpected promotion to Captain of his ship, the Cambrian Queen; blissfully unaware that his elevation will also prove his downfall.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the latter half of Capten deals mainly with John’s recovery from trauma, and Elin’s attempts to keep the wolf from the door as her husband recuperates sufficiently to face trumped-up charges and treachery from his own First Mate.
I am unsure whether the letters written by John in Part 2 were originally written by the real John Jones, or whether they were a product of Meinir Pierce Jones’ imagination; but one could not help but warm to him immensely and feel deeply concerned for his well-being.
Watching his recovery and the growing closeness between John and Elin was a heart-warming experience. Rarely have I wanted a happy ending for a fictional couple as much as I did for these two. The final pages of the book, and the family photo included on the back page, made my heart sing.
Threaded through John and Elin’s story are those of their neighbours, including the unfortunate Lydia Catrin and her daughter Adi, John’s nephew Hughie and Elin’s parents and siblings; all of whom are believably real and beautifully drawn. Perhaps the most interesting of these, to me at least, were Lydia Catrin and Adi.
Widowed when her husband was lost at sea, Lydia’s compensation for the loss of her husband was just enough to purchase a mangle to allow her to take in washing. Her dire poverty and helplessness serve as a reminder of the fate of many nautical widows, plunged into destitution before their husbands could be persuaded to swallow the anchor.
Despite the hopelessness of her situation Lydia Catrin is a survivor, and her determination is passed on to her daughter, who saunters into the final chapter in a pair of homemade bloomers.
I would truly welcome a sequel taking Adi to sea at the helm of a ship, with the wind in her hair, and will look out eagerly for any of Meinir Pierce Jones’ future novels.
Without a doubt, Capten deserves the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize – I say that as one who had a horse in the race, and I said it before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.
Capten by Meinir Pierce Jones is published by Gwasg y Bwthyn and is available from all good bookshops.
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