Review: The Rituals by Rebecca Roberts
This novel opens with a thoughtful quotation from Herbert Read about the place of death in life and then plunges the reader into the contrasting end of life arrangements for a lonely old man and a young woman in her thirties: different kinds of grief; different kinds of sadness.
The point of view is that of the protagonist, Gwawr, an independent, secular celebrant whose work it is to create bespoke ceremonies in the north Wales community where she lives.
Welsh speaking Gwawr is a single woman of 37 and has her own secret grief, a grief that is first hinted at and gradually revealed.
Perhaps it is this personal experience that allows her to work compassionately with people, to be the recipient of secrets, and the witness of extreme emotions, whether manifest at a funeral, a naming or a partnership ritual.
As a result, Gwawr has been a dedicated celebrant for six years and has built up a successful business and a reputation for writing sympathetic and personal scripts for each occasion.
As Gwawr’s own story develops, her success is undermined by malicious online accusations of inappropriate behaviour at a wedding she conducted. These rumours escalate into a vitriolic online campaign that gradually destroys everything she has achieved, leaving her with an empty diary, no income, and only the support of her nearest and dearest.
Gwawr’s quest to clear her name, in tandem with the beginnings of a love affair (or two), and her final acceptance and sharing of the tragedy in her own life provide the forward momentum for the narrative.
However, the real strength and substance of the novel, and what lifts it from any sense of predictability, is the way a discussion of grief and the necessity for ceremony in our lives is woven around the plot.
Rebecca Robert is a celebrant as well as a writer, and she uses her own experience of creating ceremonies to structure the book. Each section or chapter is named after the person whose rite of passage is being marked and every ceremony is lovingly described, both in the way it happens but also with relevant written extracts from the text in Gwawr’s notebooks.
As a celebrant myself I was intrigued by the imaginative quality of the writing here and the sense that, for Gwawr (and presumably for Rebecca) each occasion deserves to be carefully and lovingly crafted to serve the occasion and the person.
The ceremonies described run the gamut of emotions from grief to euphoria and the writer is especially good at the enormous pain that is the death of an infant.
Given this subject matter, there is plenty of opportunity for philosophical musings on these significant life moments and these are folded seamlessly into Gwawr’s reflections on her work and her aspiration to give each occasion the focus it merits.
If I have a (small) criticism it is only that I would have enjoyed more extracts from the notebooks, as the subject matter and contrast with the narrative chapters provide texture and weight.
The reader is invited to share Gwawr’s preparations and thoughts as she works on each ceremony, a fascinating glimpse “behind the scenes” and into her everyday world.
Secular celebrants are still an esoteric breed, hidden behind the more conventional world of vicars and registrars so the landscape of The Rituals is unfamiliar and worthy of exploration.
The novel was originally published in Welsh as Y Defodau and the author has provided this fluent translation herself.
The writing is assured, the characters nicely drawn, the plot and its resolution satisfying but, above all, this is a novel that skilfully takes us into unfamiliar territory, where the really significant life events and emotions are the powerful focus and provoke our own reflections.
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