Review: The Coracle and the Cathedral
The Irish writer Kevin Barry’s remarkable novel City of Bohane creates a near-future city on the western edge of Ireland, somewhere near Galway complete with feudal gangs and seething violence. Now a Welsh writer, shadowed behind the nom de plume Sylvanus erects a similarly fanciful architecture in The Coracle and the Cathedral, set in ‘the wettest county’ in Wales.
The city of Crymych, high in the Preseli hills is an enchanted and enchanting place with a cathedral and a fine expansive Piazza della Republica with its ‘beautiful fountain, infamous for its nude revellers after the cafes and taverns close in the early hours of Sunday morning.’
Then there’s the 73 storey Twm Carnabwth Tower (named after a local hero, one of the ringleaders of Rebecca’s Daughters) which stands near the entrance to the underground at Crymych Centrum. The elegant city abuts an extensive orchard where grow Welsh apple types such as Anglesey Pig’s Snout and the Bardsey Apple, Afal Enlli whose blossoms attract hitherto undiscovered species of hummingbirds and a plethora of other wonders.
Here you might see the Himalayan honeybees – the largest in the world – which account for the huge prices at the honey auctions that supply the delicatessens of Narberth.
At the heart of this sprawling and incredibly inventive novel sits the Sergeant, in sole command of the Dyfed-Powys Police Rapid-Response Coracle where his only companion and crew member is The Parrot who is, well, a parrot. But as you’ll have already surmised, this is no ordinary bird for this is a world where anything ordinary seems to be banished.
The Sergeant and The Parrot are trying to solve a crime, being the disappearance of the Landsker Line dividing south from north Pembrokeshire but as plot lines go that one’s spun of spider gossamer.
It’s a book where the reader is encouraged to do warm up exercises before one begins reading, especially if there is ‘a well-sprung settee at hand there’s nothing better than a triple-back somersault folded in half with twists to clear the head.’ We also meet Megan and Bronwen who live in the cathedral crypt and take part in clogging competitions and involve themselves in the myriad activities of Machlud y Wawr, the all- pervasive and totally effective, if shadowy women’s organisation. They eat a lot of cakes, too: in fact the novel is a veritable confection of snacks and edibles, from a bonanza of bara brith to more elaborate tasty things involving truffles.
The author has clearly had enormous fun assembling the mad architecture of his world, from planning the landing of the first coracle on the dark side of Caldey Island (impossible without the help of the University of the Four Trinity Davids’ Space Colonisation Institute, located at Tenby Museum to the sprawling sea-borne adventures of the Sergeant involving Cornish pirates and great white sharks.
The book is peppered with good gags. We find Megan reading ‘a novel called The Girl With a Double Dragon Tattoo and leafing through it noticed how long it was. “Over two thousand pages.” This isn’t a book, it’s a library.’ There is also a very long running gag in which a weatherman called Derec makes perfunctory appearances to tell us exactly just how and how much it’s going to rain.
Elsewhere on the radio we hear Katherine Jenkins ‘belting out that old Nonconformist favourite, King Crimson’s ‘21st Century Schizoid Woman’ and there are references to old movies such as How to Marry a Millionaire ‘based on the true story of three fashion models who share a flat in Haverfordwest and who intend marrying for money.’
The book is clearly written by an author with tongue planted firmly in cheek who devours books, as there are a great many name checks for a range of writers from Gwen Parrott through Herman Hesse and Waldo Williams to Dewi Emrys.
You can almost read the book as a literary reference game, much as you can do with Lucy Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport, with its legion references to Dickens. Like Ellman’s huge work The Coracle and the Cathedral belongs very much in a long tradition of playful, wildly inventive novels that go back to Tristram Shandy and more recently include the work of Los Angeles writer Mark Danielwski – which similarly plays games with type font and arrangement – and of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, set in Ashford Kent, as unlikely a setting, perhaps, as Fishguard.
Here excitement is running high ‘since it was revealed that as part of their plan to streamline the half-hourly Town Service bus route between Fishguard and Goodwick the Town Council have opened up an Einstein-Rosen bridge between two disparate points in spacetime in the vicinity.’
Reading The Coracle and the Cathedral reminded this reviewer of the experience of first reading Lloyd Jones’ award winning Mr Vogel, and how that begged the question where on earth did this novel, and indeed this novelist spring from? Incredibly confident and quietly provocative in one and the same breath,
The Coracle and the Cathedral has some very tender writing about love which give the reader pause among the more general mayhem of migrating wildebeest and the appearances of mysterious metal monoliths.
If a more imaginative novel appears in Wales this year I’ll eat the tricorn hat I always wear to do the dishes. Like the dark chocolate it keeps on recommending it’s often never less than rich in innovation and, well, sense of fun.
And because the informative weatherman keeps up popping up on its pages he might as well have pretty much the last word:
‘This evening swallows are soaring, feeding on insects high in the sky, a sign that it will be a fine day tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, Derec.’
A strawberry moon casts its glow over all.
The Coracle and the Cathedral is independently published and you can buy a copy here….
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