Were I the sort of writer who suffers from envy I’d probably switch off the radio just before despatching assassins down the Aberaeron road. The first part of the radio adaptation of the Ceredigion-based Cynan Jones’ soon-to-be-published novel proved, once again, just how pared back and bloody brilliant is his writing. If you read his terse, tight works such as ‘Cove,’‘The Dig’ and ‘Everything I Found on the Beach’ you’ll soon glean this isn’t someone who works with a pen but rather with a scalpel, cutting the prose back to the very quick, seemingly sharpening each sentence with a thin steel blade.
Now the winner of last year’s BBC Short Story Award gets his next novel serialized – itself a chain of interconnecting stories about a nurse who is about to start an affair, a dying woman, and a boy who follows a stray dog out of the city.
Set in the near future, the story hinges on a lone sniper, guarding the water trains that cargo the valuable commodity into the parched cities. They transport ten million tons at 200 mph and there have been attacks, activists set to derail it. “They weren’t taking any chances now. Attacks on the line increased. Anything they could not get a visual on they were under orders to shoot.” So those in the watch-towers are nervous, twitchy, especially if a Muntjac deer, or, God forbid a man, strays toward the tracks.
And to add to the tension there’s the rain, the constant rain, “patting on the corrugated roof” or sometimes the “rain thundered, drumming the watchpost, thumping down.” The story’s read with measured restraint and clarity by Richard Goulding, who lets the Swiss precision prose of the writing do its thing, so that “the contained clatter of the runnelled rain” also suggests the far-off sounds of the oncoming train. A pheasant “shuttered its wings,” startling the silence with its electronic alarm calls. Blackbirds add their bright drops of melody. Everything is watchful, alert, adrenalined.
On radio, unlike reading a book, you only get one pass at each sentence, so the listener needs all the info and enough space for his or her own imagination. So this production by BBC Books’ Producer Justine Willett is spare and spacy, added to by the plangent piano chords and reverberating, metallic atmospherics of Kirsten Morrison who composed the music.
Water drips and drops behind all the words in ‘Stillicide,’ adding to the sense of irony that the people who guard the train inhabit a place where water is plentiful, much like Wales. As long as it is sterilized they have more than they need. Indeed ‘stillicide’ itself is a term for water dripping from the eaves of a house but it might also apply to this sniper position, where standing dead still is the best way to avoid taking a bullet.
The tension of these readings is added to by the plausibility of this near-future, where water is commodified and giant icebergs could be hauled into ports, where the giant Ice Dock will displace many people from their homes and trains might indeed be armed against the threat of atttack. It is a chill piece of vaticination, of looking into the crystal ball to see climate change leading to the near-militarization of the water industry, and scarcity leading to scarifying security.
Writing this good can indeed make you envious but online directories such as Yell simply don’t list “assassins” under their services. I looked. Best I could manage was a dodgy electrician, though that might work.
If there is such a thing as Welsh exceptionalism when it comes to writing, then Cynan Jones has it in spades. The clarity of his work on the page transfers perfectly to the airwaves and ‘Stillicide’ underlines his ready gift for the taut line or short stabs of poetry. This is compelling radio which shows that Jones is a master of concision and the sharpest of storytellers.
Stillicide is on BBC Radio 4 on Sundays at 19.45. Catch up here.