Review: The Levels is a timely and engaging book about the politicization of the land
Just as the former lead-mining areas of mid-Wales are riddled with tunnels and disused workings, so too is this novel by Helen Pendry, set in the same pock-marked and sullied landscape, shot through with secrets.
Abbie Hughes, a social worker in a London hostel for the homeless befriends one of the men in her care, Tegid Rhys, who then disappears. Her quest to find him again takes her to Pont Rhith, a village with a name that translates as “The Bridge of Illusion.”
Here its inhabitants are taking up various positions on plans to create a new military training camp in the area. It is also a community in mourning as a drone has crashed out of the skies and landed on a house, killing the woman who lived there. Speculation is rife that Tegid may have shot it down.
As drones become more prevalent in modern warfare so too do they appear increasingly in fiction, from novels such as Owen Sheers’ I Saw a Man to Oisin Fagan’s short story “Glitch.” The Levels is the latest manifestation of concern over this new development in warfare, many of the drones, of course being launched from sites in Wales, such as Aberporth.
The novel also carries clear echoes of past incidents of Welsh land being commandeered as part of the war effort, such as the sequestration of farms on the Epynt in the 1940s and the plans to build a bombing school on Llŷn at Penyberth.
This time it’s not a case of the M.O.D or War Office directly seizing the lands but rather a private consortium doing so, the shadowy MT4S which is happy to employ pretty much any skullduggery to get its dark work done.
It’s thus, in part a book about black propaganda and spin, as the reputations of some of the locals are besmirched by smooth operators such as Ben Rickman. He is a neat if nasty creation, a real snake oil salesman, who moves deftly between London streets – where he gives away mobile phones to the homeless, but not for philanthropic reasons – and the sheepfolds of mid-Wales. Here he works to undermine local opposition to the militarization of a countryside already shattered each day by the screams of low flying jets.
It turns out that Tegid Rhys is a far more complex character than Abbie first took him for, as he had a part to play in developing the very technology that led to creating drones in the first place. In giving Abbie the use of his camper van Tegid also gives her access to his newspaper archive of killings by drones, following so-called “execution paths” in countries such as Pakistan.
She also follows a series of Rhys’s hand-drawn maps, charting the local area. Exploring the farmed and forested land in this way, Abbie encounters a range of local characters, from the dope-smoking, chainsaw-wielding forester Raven, the Welsh nationalist bookshop owner Delyth Roberts and the defiant farmer Mr Ellis, who has created a dragon-shaped earthwork on his land as his own personal protest.
The language employed throughout this novel is stripped back and bare, letting the plot do its work of compelling the reader through its tunnel-like series of interconnected narratives, connecting remote parts of mid-Wales to the workings of the Deep State.
Mysteries proliferate throughout, as we meet the characters in Abbie’s life such as her father, a Labour party turncoat turned Tory Member of Parliament and ex-squaddie Owen. He befriends Abbie even though, it transpires, he’s working for the other side, bringing to mind the moral suppuration of undercover policemen who infiltrate organisations by sleeping with women.
Punctuating the overall narrative arc of the novel are terse, atmospheric underground sequences which chronicle the dying days of someone trapped underground, possibly Tegid Rhys himself, doomed to die alone.
By rummaging through Rhys’ personal archives Abbie unearths evidence of past iniquities in the area, such as the treatment of the men who worked underground, who would have to buy essential equipment themselves from the company stores, adding to the owners’ profits. She examines a photograph of a line of men working at the benches of a mill workshop:
“A few of the workers peer at the camera through a filter of dust, as though they’re staring at the ghosts of the future with curiosity and bemusement, but most have their heads down, ignoring the time that is to come and the attention of their well-fed grandchildren.
“There are pictures too of the finished products; not just roofing tiles but a pulpit made of slate, and urinals, and pig troughs, and a billiard table, switchboards and gravestones. And a reusable coffin.”
The novel builds up to an open-ended, ambivalent ending which cleverly inverts the history of Tryweryn, as Abbie is given access to a stache of sufficient explosives to puncture a hole in a dam and drown the entire training ground, doing with water what Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J.Williams tried to do with fire at the RAF bombing school on Llŷn in the 1930s, namely throw a cog into the well oiled machine of the military.
Throughout this timely, wise and engaging book about the politicization of the land, we see the Welsh tradition of principled pacifism being upheld by a dwindling few, and stubbornly maintained at that, in the face of establishment opposition and military manoeuvres to outsmart the civilian populace. In a dystopian touch, the army establishes checkpoints on quiet country roads.
There is a sense of a language dying and, indeed, a wider culture being lost, as one’s world “trickles away over the years until you’re living somewhere you don’t recognise any more, among people who speak another language when they greet each other”.
The Levels is a novel to make you think about the myriad claims on the Welsh countryside at a time when changes of many kinds loom, from rewilding the self-same Ceredigion hills to DEFRA’s worrying plans for what happens to surplus sheep should we find ourselves facing WTO tariffs as a consequence of the Brexit debacle.
Do not come here for picturesque panoramas, or tourist board, photoshopped images. This is a place where people live, work and die. The Levels offers a steely-eyed look at the brutal reality of country life which is never that far away or sufficiently remote to not somehow be in thrall to the dictats or desires of Whitehall.