Review: Hergest by Geraint Evans
In this his latest novel, Geraint Evans transports the reader to the fictional university town of Hergest. As it is a fictional location, this immediately begs the question: where exactly is Hergest?
Luckily, the author helps us out in the beginning, by including an entry from an equally fictional travellers guide book, published in 2015.
From the description provided in the guidebook entry, we can tell that the town is located somewhere in Powys, as there is mention of mid Wales mountains and the Severn river (which the fictional river Eiddi flows into).
Mention of the Severn gives me the impression that Hergest could be located somewhere near Llanidloes, Newtown, or Welshpool.
It is mentioned in the guidebook entry that Hergest has a history as a spa town, much like Llandrindod or Builth Wells.
Speaking as a partially sighted reader, Evans does an excellent job of describing the town through the medium of the guidebook entry. It proves an extremely effective way of setting the scene for this reader.
The author makes envisaging locations such as the Queens Lake, the café, the Glenturret and Llannerch hotels effortless, thanks to the descriptions provided.
The reader is given a history of Hergest University. Originally founded to focus on Theology and Celtic Studies, we are informed that the university, modelled on Oxford colleges in its architecture, has diversified since its foundation in 1878.
Indeed, the description of Hergest makes it sound like somewhere Visit Wales could include in an advertising campaign. It’s certainly the kind of location this reader would like to visit.
However, within the walls of the university at least, all is not as idyllic as the town itself. From the opening chapter, the reader is thrust into the centre of university politics.
The Vice Chancellor, Rodric Lewys, meets with fellow committee members, Richard Rich (School of Business), Halcyon Day (English), Erasmus Pryce (Chaplin), Cwyfan Annwyl (Celtic Studies) and Tanwen Sprint (Leisure) to discuss applications for the Playfair funded residential year for visiting academics, with Lewys’ secretary (and apparent mistress) Rhiannon Francis taking notes.
There is a confrontational atmosphere with Pryce being especially outspoken about the less than holy ways by which Playfair make their money, not to mention the scandal apparently caused by the visiting Albanian the previous year.
Pryce therefore refuses to vote in favour of any candidate. Due to a tie in the votes, Lewys has the deciding vote, which Tanwen Sprint discretely secures by letting him know she’s aware of an illicit liaison he had during a conference in 2017.
This predictably secures Dr Rodrigo Lewis, the joint Celtic Studies and Leisure nominee from Patagonia, the residential year in Hergest. Tanwen points out the similarity between the names of the Argentinian academic and the Vice Chancellor.
Immediately I found myself wondering whether this was a coincidence, or given Lewys’ apparent tendency for infidelity, had he ever perhaps been to Patagonia on “university business”?
As it turns out, the similarity of their names will be commented upon several times during the course of the year. Indeed, this coincidence has unforeseen consequences later on.
Upon his arrival at Hergest, I find myself sympathising with Rodrigo. Especially so as he arrives on a cold and wet night, thinking that perhaps coming to Wales was a mistake.
The reception he receives varies between welcoming and hostile. From Mazar, the friendly Kurdish taxi driver at the train station, who will come to Rodrigo’s rescue more than once, to the less than welcoming secretary Marjorie Munday, initial reactions to Rodrigo are mixed, to say the least.
A warning from William Wilkins, the senior finance officer about avoiding scandal, and the letter in his office from Cwyfan Annwyl outlining the need to promote the good name of the department and the university, makes the reader want Rodrigo to succeed.
However, to say there are bumps in the road along the way would be an understatement.
Between Sioned, an overfamiliar third year student (who causes Gruff, a colleague who Rodrigo is lodging with, to remind him about the importance of boundaries, something his Albanian predecessor didn’t pay much attention to) to a plot against him hatched in the Glenturret by Richard Rich, Halcyon Day and Erasmus Pryce (a scene almost reminiscent of the three witches in the opening act of MacBeth) Rodrigo doesn’t have the easiest time of it in Hergest.
Events within the book do not take place in a self-contained bubble however, and this is to be commended.
The fact that people and places from Rodrigo’s past, the mysterious young woman he keeps a photograph of, or the mention of attending Santa Maria church in Argentina as a child, feature in the story makes the reader want to know more about him.
Also excellent are the occasions where Evans takes the reader away from Hergest for a time.
Be it down to Cardiff, which gives Rodrigo the chance to spend time with his cousin Alvaro, and is given the opportunity to commentate at rugby matches. Or to a farmhouse, where Rodrigo embarks on a risky affair. Even away from the university, there’s plenty going on here.
The use of Spanish or English words in otherwise Welsh sentences spoken by characters is much appreciated here.
A reminder to readers that codeswitching, no matter the combination of languages involved, is perfectly normal.
Geraint Evans has provided an incredibly readable novel here which I honestly struggled to put down.
This is a work of fiction where, at the end of a chapter, I would find myself thinking “Just one more.”
An excellent read!
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