Review: The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros
I would never play poker against Manon Steffan Ros. On the day she won the prestigious Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff I happened to sit next to her on the bus going down to the Maes in Cardiff Bay. She didn’t let on one bit about the fact that later her novel was going to win and that in the afternoon she would be the subject of all the trumpet fanfares and bardic ceremony.
But even she wouldn’t know how much of an impact her short, brilliant novel would have – going on to win the 2019 Wales Book of the Year and become the most talked about, and, perhaps more importantly – the most widely read Welsh language novel for many a long moon.
“Exciting” tends to be a much-overused term but in this case the book really did create a lot of excitement, as well as generating legions of readers. So it’s pleasing to see her own adaptation of this deeply affecting north Walian dystopia into English now joining translations into French, Arabic, Catalan and Polish.
On the face of it this is a simple tale of a mother and her two children struggling to survive after a nuclear-related incident has ushered in ‘The End of Things.’ The electricity is permanently cut off, the modern age and its gadgetry have all disappeared and manifestly only a few people survived.
So Rowenna, her son Dylan and very young daughter Mona scratch a living in and around their home in Nebo, in the hardscrabble landscape of Snowdonia’s foothills overlooking Caernarfon and Anglesey.
Despite his youth – Dylan is only six when the lights go off – he proves himself to be an adept gardener, nursing plants to health in polytunnels and also to be a skilful hunter, catching all sorts of animals for the pot.
He spares a mutant hare which appears one day and develops a soft spot for it, despite its appearance, and gives it a name, Pwyll. Of such small events is the book created, following the patterns of the trio’s lives in a world that is utterly changed and now fear-riven, although:
Fear is a different thing since the End. It’s softer because it never leaves, and it’s not as powerful as it used to be. I used to worry about paying the insurance and that my jeans were too tight, and that I looked old. Now I worry about the potato harvest, and about someone coming here, maybe, and killing us all. And I worry about the nothingness that is everywhere.
And one day someone does come, a pleasant-enough drifter from Porthmadog, who brings news of a handful of people who have similarly made it through the ordeals of radiation poisoning and the travails of hunting for food.
The man, Gwion, brings a small modicum of comfort into Rowenna’s life. It has been so empty without other people, Snapchat and Facebook that she had started to see human emotions everywhere so that ‘the potato field is kind on a warm spring day’ and the house ‘is fed up and has allowed another hole in the roof’ not to mention the temperamental weather which is like ‘an untrustworthy lover’ that she can’t break free from.
Gwion encourages Rowenna to follow his example and start breaking into empty homes to gather treasures such as tinned food. She and Dylan garner essentials, including books which help them make it through the days.
Without all the noise and media chatter of the modern age they begin to hear the world differently, with a growing awareness of such things as the ‘chaos of rain patterns on the window’ or knowing, without looking that it has been snowing because one learns to ‘hear its thickness on the ground outside.’
As you’ll have gleaned from these brief examples ‘The Blue Book of Nebo’ is written in the clearest prose and Manon Steffan Ros had managed to deftly explain many of the specifically Welsh language references in it.
In that sense it opens up a cultural window into the world of other books and authors such as Bethan Gwanas, Dewi Prysor and T. H. Parry Williams who are namechecked and more in the original Llyfr Glas Nebo and to the various references to the Mabinogion and to Dafydd Iwan songs, while some are just presented as the Welsh words for creatures in the garden. Madfall, malwod, morgrug.
Reading it for the second time, but now in English of course, I was reminded about how much Ros has managed to concertina into a book which started life as a YA novella but had mutated like some amazing hare into a Welsh publishing phenomenon, leaping into people’s lives.
It has a plausible near-future in which Wylfa is one of the ugliest and cruellest words; where desiccated slugs die in droves and a Christ-like figure appears in a landscape already peppered with Old Testament names such as Cesarea and Nebo, which derives from a biblical chapel.
There is one reference which isn’t explained, being the title itself, which refers to the 19th century ‘Blue Books,’ bound in leather of that colour and containing government reports which showed the Welsh to be illiterate, barbaric even, and dismissing the language as uncivilised and unnecessary. In the journal Rowenna and Dylan keep – in their own blue book – is contained a sort of late riposte to the arrogance of those government inspectors, underlining the resilience, beauty and, well necessity of the language; as sustaining as stolen tinned food.
Robert Frost famously said that ‘The poetry is in the untranslatable:’ this novel seems to find the complex truth in that assertion, even as it shines with the quiet poetry and lustre of its sentences, shot through with the defiant hope that powers its characters, who live on in the mind long past the frighteningly plausible awfulness of ‘The End.’
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