Review: Revenant is a memorable reminder of the gifts of one of Wales’s most compelling writers
You don’t have to know the south-east corner of Anglesey to enjoy this novel as Tristan Hughes paints it for you in bright dabs of prose – building up the saint’s well, a beach of white stones, a lighthouse, groves of monkey puzzle trees, a dilapidated mansion and the coachloads of aged tourists into a composite whole. Here he is describing the higher ground of slate on the mainland:
“The mountains were like Jack Cucu’s teeth, carious and geriatric; abraded, greybrown stumps. They were huddled under an umbrella of mist, looking mutely back at me with creased and rubbled faces, the scree sprouting like cancer spots on their skin.”
The book details the friendships and tensions of a quartet of young friends, each in his own way an outsider of sorts. There is Ricky, suppurating with anger, whose family once worked the fairs and owned a dancing bear. And cold-hearted Steph, whose mother often dresses up to the nines but never goes out. Then there’s Neil, a damaged soul and finally Del, doomed to die in a tragic accident, who is the gyre around which their young lives turn.
So we learn about their escapades together, some just harmless fun and others not so, such as a wanton act of arson, or when they break into someone’s house and are nearly caught, or Ricky’s confession that he stole money from the holy well leading to a worry he’s stolen other people’s luck. Perhaps he did because when the four of them discover a boat and claim it for themselves it might just be the start of some Enid Blyton style- adventure, indeed the start of her book called The Island of Adventure but luck is most certainly absent.
The lighthouse which stands sentinel at Penmon, where the waters of the Menai Straits and open sea meet and churn marks a deadly stretch of water. And when Del takes out the purloined boat alone, the other three must face the consequences of their actions, or more chillingly, their inactions. Even the seascape, the ‘sands, light slicked and smooth,’ usually raucous with seagulls and the clang of the lighthouse bell falls silent on that fateful day, those ‘sands, which in the other language are Wylofain, but were quiet that day, mute, when they should have cried out, when they should have screamed.’
The story of the four is told as interlacing memories, or perhaps shards of memory’s broken mirror, so that we get more than one account of some of the bravura moments, such as the visit to the village school, now closed but where the age-befuddled former headmaster and the teacher who loved him wordlessly still meet to educate their ghostly children, or the torching of the lodge where as kids they used to meet the Candyman, who gave them sweets in return for favours.
This fine novel was first published in 2008 and its republishing is very welcome, a book that takes its places alongside Hughes’s other novels and stories which all sing in some way about Anglesey, even when they might be formally set a long way away.
Hughes is a gifted and sophisticated storyteller and as he peels back the layers of the past in Revenant he underlines its inescapability, the way it forms us and cannot simply be buried away. For the past has a tendency to surface, to break though when one is unwitting or even unwilling for it do so so. And from such breachings and surfacings is this gorgeous, clever, nuanced novel made, a memorable reminder of the lavish and ready gifts of one of Wales’s most compelling writers.
Revenant is published by Parthian and you can buy it here