Review: Rhyngom by Sioned Erin Hughes
The winner of the Prose Medal at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Tregaron presents us with a brand new literary voice and startlingly so.
Rhyngom (Between Us) is 24 year old Sioned Erin Hughes’ first volume for adults though you’d scarcely countenance the fact given the verve, confidence and sheer maturity of the writing herein.
The octet of short stories examine life from many angles.
The opener ‘I fod yn fam’ (To be a mother) charts a midwife’s attempts to start her own family via all the testing travails of IVF to an epiphany on a trip to Canada when wannabe mother Mims realizes that there can be actually be more to life than having a child.
It’s a story that opens with an epigraph supplied by the so-called Queen of the Welsh language short story, Kate Roberts who suggests that everyone suffers from hiraeth, from a longing for something they cannot have.
That idea cleverly plays into a story which one imagines Roberts herself would have enjoyed reading, for its clarity, concision and the deft way it conjures characters into being and allows us access to their inner lives.
Other stories in this crisp collection similarly map out relationships and the distances between people, from the close, intimate warmth of a grandmother’s embrace to the widening chasms between lovers who are harbouring secrets from each other.
Or as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk cautions in a quote at the beginning of a story called ‘Haul llwynog’, ‘As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.’
In the case of this specific story the secret is a terrible one, after Elen is raped at a New Year’s Eve party by one of her friends.
And this on the eve of a new year and a new start, when her partner Einion is fully intending to ask her to marry him as they perform their by-now annual ritual of climbing Moel Hebog together.
The stories in Rhyngom are confident in both form and telling, some of them working almost as the equivalent to a musical call-and-response as we hear and see both sides of a couple’s story.
Much as the equally gifted prose stylist Lleucu Roberts does in her work, Sioned Erin Hughes is very confident in writing in vernacular from different parts of Wales without it ever seeming as hollow as ventriloquism. She does dialect as locals do.
The tales are also shot through with popular culture as this is very much writing of now, so that there are scenes reminiscent of the film Bridesmaids, characters sit down to watch the reality TV show about Alaskan fishermen Deadliest Catch, or there are snatches of dialogue from The Office US (in which the character Andy Bernard bemoans the fact that he wishes ‘There was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.’).
That sense of nowness is very much apparent, too, in a story such as ‘Er Mwyn Byw’ (In Order to Live) which charts young Afghan refugee Khushal’s twelve month long journey to seek sanctuary in England with all the hardships imposed by human traffickers, not to mention the myriad dangers of being hidden in lorries or being ferried across the English Channel in a small boat.
The stand-out story for me is the one which rounds off the collection. ‘Er fy mwyn fy hun’ (Just for myself) is an emotionally pulverising account of a young mother dealing with cancer (by way of attesting to the calibre of the writing the doctor who informs her just how long she has to live has winter in his eyes) and thus wrestling with her sense of mortality.
It’s a story that turns not on how to die but, rather, on how to live in a tale shot through with this mother’s strength, love for her family and simple defiance.
Rather than tick off things on a bucket list such as walking the Grand Canyon or praying at the foot of Christ the Redeemer she plumps for simpler things in her final six months, such as having smoked salmon for breakfast, enjoying luxuriating baths, wearing dangerous lipstick or having days of not doing very much at all, as is her prerogative.
It’s an enormously impactful act of storytelling which mixes simplicities and profundities in one and the same breath.
You simply cannot underestimate the role of the National Eisteddfod in not just promoting Welsh language literature but in creating it.
The various literary competitions, from the most prestigious for the chair and crown to the welter of smaller ones for essays and articles and so on encourage new work which often subsequently benefits from the scrutiny and commentary of the various judges.
The sheer quality of this year’s Prose Medal winner once again underlines the role of our great cultural festival in encouraging the creation, then presenting the work, this case that of a fiercely gifted writer who very much deserves to stand centre stage.
Rhyngom offers the reader a confident array of precise, concise and compact work, in which Sioned Erin Hughes often trims and pares back the prose to its bare essentials but even then manages to bring the characters pulsingly to life, so that we care for them, and hurt when they hurt.
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