Review: The Blue Tent is a portal to a magical Wales

The Blue Tent. Background image of the Black Mountains by Mark Anderson (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Jon Gower

It’s already turning out to be a bumper year for fiction from Wales with superb novels such as Alys Conran’s ‘Dignity’ and Patrick McGuinness’ ‘Throw Me To The Wolves’ to delight the reader, and now this.

On the face of it it’s a simple tale.  An old man lives in Ty Rhosyn, a rambling house in the Black Mountains which he has inherited from his aunt Megan, a redoubtable adventurer and collector whose spirit lives on in the ancient pile.  Here the nephew tries to read his way through her library which is stuffed to the rafters with the occult and the arcane, books with catchy titles such as the ‘Aphorismi Urbigerani or Certain Rules, Clearly Demonstrating the Three Infallible Ways of Preparing the Grand Elixir of the Philosophers.’

One day the man wakes up to find someone has pitched a blue tent outside.  He investigates to find it is a two-person affair, set up with steel and wooden poles and made of a deep blue material that is so blue it shocks him. He quickly finds it is much more than it appears to be.

For when he goes inside he falls asleep – a real blessing for a man usually wracked by insomnia – and the first of an edgy, disturbing series of dreams ensue.  Then, back in what purports to be the real world visitors start arriving, all of them in some way connected to the tent.

First comes a dog, initially baptised Ketamine, then shortened to Keto. Then Alice appears, a young lady, trailing behind her all of her name’s wonderland connotations. She accompanies the man on days out, visiting such local attractions as the former Talgarth mental hospital and the grave of a local alchemist Thomas Vaughan, brother of the poet Henry Vaughan.

Then a vagrant called O’Hallaran saunters into view, bringing with him clear echoes of Richard Gwyn’s own peregrinating life as an itinerant worker and dedicated drinker, brilliantly chronicled in ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ of 2011. And finally comes Gabrielle, a Frenchwoman who soon briskly seduces the old man.

 Secret

It’s been a dozen years since Richard Gwyn published a novel, being the Cretan adventure ‘Deep Hanging Out’ which appeared in 2007. It’s been well worth the long wait because this is an absorbing tale, where the oddities of the subject matter are easily dispelled by the conviction of the telling.

Right from the outset, the old man’s account of the events takes you in, like salmon being scooped into a keep net. His voice is both cajoling and clear. He describes the Black Mountain as not being ‘black of course; they acquired the name centuries ago on account of the perennial gloom into which the sky shrouds them when approached from the east, offering a promise of darkness and exclusion, a state or condition personified no doubt by the warlike Celts who once defended their muddy pile against the no less hostile Saxons and Normans.’

Elsewhere in the novel, this land is described as paradisal, conveying a ‘sense of green serenity.’  With such daubs of colour does Gwyn portray the high hills and secret valleys which are surely redolent of the author’s own childhood in Crickhowell?

The blueness of the tent’s fabric naturally stands out against such a background but its intense colour is only of its unusual facets.  It seems that it can have various owners at one and the same time and in Alice’s words ‘it can be dangerous to meddle with the tent’s outputs’ and that it can unleash ‘mysterious things.’

But the tent is not the only weird object in the vicinity because O’Hallaran brings with him an aleph, a tiny object which is a kind of mystical telescope which allows its owner to view the entire universe, to see ‘millions of acts both delightful and awful’ as one of the book’s epigrams from the Argentine writer J.L.Borges puts it.

Borges is an obvious influence on Gwyn who is a keen Hispanist and translator.  They both stretch the thin membrane between the real and fantastical worlds to breaking point without you ever realizing it.  Thus the old man, the reader in his Black Mountains’ home, eager to crack the secret of his aunt ‘s advice: ‘One book opens another.

Read many books and compare them throughout and then you get the meaning’ has obvious echoes of Borges’s classic story “The Library of Babel” in which the universe itself is cast as one vast library.

Portal

There’s a danger of making the novel sound too clever and abstruse, to suggest it is a-clutter with ideas but it’s none of those. The writing runs as clear as a Beacons’ stream and even the oddest narrative twists seem less odd because of the matter-of-fact way they’re presented.

Of course, a fox will stroll up to a picnic table and help himself to crisps. Of course, people heal unnaturally quickly after being battered with a baseball bat.

‘The Blue Tent’ is pitched right on the line, the one that divides the daily drudge and the fields of dreams.  The reader, Gwyn encourages us to believe, can cross over, or maybe slip straight on through. Despite Gwyn being a poet of distinction the language of ‘The Blue Tent’ is mainly unadorned and unfussy: Gwyn respectfully leaves the story to do its thing, to cast its net most effectively well.

One quick warning about the book. It’s not at all easy to put down and I found myself compelled to cancel an appointment to finish reading it. I won’t say much about the ending, in which Gwyn casually changes gear and outweirds himself but it leads to that complete readerly satisfaction that is so often the purview of the short story.

Suffice it to say that this book is itself a sort of portal, where the novelist-as-alchemist builds us a house in the hills and then fills it, and the landscape which envelops it, with a convincing magic.

The Blue Tent by Richard Gwyn, is published by Parthian, costs £10 and can be bought here.

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