Review. Tu Ôl i’r Awyr, is a bone fide and undeniable instant classic and worthy winner of Wales Book of the Year award
The Welsh language winner of this year’s Wales Book of the Year arrived trailing a garland of plaudits from the likes of Manon Steffan Ros, who pronounced it to be much more than a novel but rather ‘a totally new literary experience which fills your head.’ This ineffably touching and magisterially-wrought tale of two fragile sixth formers is all that and more. It is easily one of the most significant works to appear in many a long decade, which will probably require some recalibration of the attainments of the Welsh language novel itself.
As if that weren’t cause enough for celebration, the fact that this is a debut novel by a writer who is a student in her second year at university makes it even more of a champagne moment.
When we first encounter Anest it’s her voice that grabs you, a stream of lower case, expletive-strewn consciousness presented in a vernacular, nervily energetic first-person narration that tells us so much about where she lives and how she lives and when she lives. The time-check is there in the text abbreviations such as ‘tbf,’ ‘tbh,’ ‘ngl’ and ‘ffs’ while Anest’s language is punctuated by English words such as ‘conked,’ as the author not only merrily mixes it up, but marks the busy interface between the two languages as Anest wrestles them both into a lively Wenglish. ‘It takes ages’ mutates into ‘man cymyd ejys,’ and so on. Not only does this mixing and mangling feel authentic, a register of the times, of now, it also energizes the language throughout. Think of the argot of James Kelman’s novels transposed to Dyffryn Nantlle and you begin to get the gist.
But the imagery is startling, too. As she tidies up her room at the start of the book Anest looks at the floor ‘which looks wrong somehow, like a warzone without the dead bodies, only blood so I throw a few pillows back onto it.’ Anest has a history of self-harm, so such carpet stains are no dark fancy.
Deian, meanwhile is a troubled, artistic soul, who paints and draws and totally adores the letters of Van Gogh, which are often quoted and considered herein. Deian’s account of his life is punctuated by staccato lines of what we take to be self- description, which map out a lack of self-worth using words such a pathetic, weak, sensitive, quiet, different. Such lists recurr like a tic, reminding us of the fragility of Deian’s mental health. He needs pills to deal with his panic attacks and perhaps, most of all needs a friend. How the reader rejoices when he finally finds one.
Both Deian and Anest, friends who first meet when they’re both in hospital, live in a world familiar to so many in their late teens, one of sixth-form politics, resit exams, awkward discos and casual bullying. In the midst of these are two people who don’t see themselves as ever truly fitting in or belonging drifting into each other’s orbits. Deian introduces Anest to jazz and she, in turn, takes him to her secret place, a forgotten house in the woods. The two warily befriend each other, come to depend on and appreciate each other more and more. Their relationship deepens, even as Anest finds love with Rashdi but ultimately feels so worthless that she severs all links between her and her new lover. It’s one of the many heartbreaks that run like fissure lines through the book, cracking its sparkling surface.
There’s a key moment when Anest, seeking sanctuary from the voices in her head amid the ammoniac smells of the school, reads a graffito which turns out to be a poem. Called “Y Milwr Bach” (The Little Soldier’) it depicts the battle of a dandelion to break through a layer of tarmac and how its roots struggle to find sustenance in the earth that lies beneath. Unbeknown to her it was written by Deian, and might well be a metaphor for him, his ‘fragile, yellow face’ struggling to be a seen in a world bright with Van Gogh sunflowers. But the Dutch painter’s life, that famous struggle between creativity and self-destruction illuminates the difficult path Deian must tread as he uses his art to defy the illusory, spectral “Hands” he occasionally sees and the creeping surges of anxiety which threaten to overwhelm him.
The novel works in so many registers. There are succinct exchanges on Snapchat and vivid meditations on creativity, as when Deian introduces Anest to some jazz by the Blue Jacks or ponders the sculptural work of artist Brenda Elias. Elias supplies a quote and telling epigraph to the book which translates as ‘I do not want to create – I have to create. Creating alone holds me back from treading the path of insanity.’ That difficult path is one of the big themes of the novel, as is the sustaining power of friendship but there is so much more to ponder as one moves along its pages. There’s Deian’s absent father, his song-writing, or the day the young man dyes his hair blue, a rare act of defiance by some who is too easily cow-towed. And there are the glimpses of his sister Lowri’s life, her uncertainty about staying at university and her pattern of diligent drinking and nightclubbing which often end with dispiriting sex.
Funny, irreverent, on the money and utterly, utterly unique, Tu Ôl i’r Awyr offers twin portraits of believable, incredibly engaging characters as they face up, or are sometimes defeated by the challenges of mental health as Hunter conjures up their damaged, vulnerable lives in a mature and responsible way. I can think of only a handful of novels that have affected me as much.
As Hunter and I share an editor I contacted her half way through reading this novel to air my enthusiasm. She could not recall reading any book that had the same impact on her, and admitted that she even got a tad emotional when people simply mentioned it. It really is that emotionally impactful not to mention artistically assured and I for one can’t wait to re-read it. What an astonishing achievement it is for one’s debut novel to be a bone fide and undeniable instant classic.
Tu Ôl i’r Awyr is published by Y Lolfa and can be purchased here
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Some tremendous Welsh books since Covid struck. And now this!.Will my poor grasp of Cymraeg do it justice? Let’s see.