Plunging into a decades-long story of friendship, there is no doubting the skill with which Ruth Jones captures character. Her television creations are funny, warm, and larger than life, and in ‘Us Three’ the central women of the title are just as vivid, complicated and recognisable.
Catrin-Kelly-Judith-Harris-Lana-Lloyd (a childhood chant sung to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’) have been friends since their first day at primary school; three girls from Coed Celyn (too frequently translated as Holly Wood) ‘as different as chalk and cheese and chocolate.’ The story intricately weaves the highs and lows of their lives, their loves and losses, the rivalries and betrayals inevitable in a longstanding friendship.
A carefree pre-university trip, island hopping around Greece before they go their separate ways, sets up a series of mini tremors which rumble through their adult lives, challenging their loyalties to each other and to their families, and shaping their present and their future. While Catrin finds the love of her life, and Jude discovers a part of her father’s past she knew nothing about, Lana flippantly makes a choice which will change the trio’s relationship forever.
Back home in Wales, it is Catrin’s loving and supportive family, full of quirks and mannerisms that hint at the Barry contingent of Gavin & Stacey, which provides a solid base for the three friends. When Jude’s family life turns upside down, they provide a soft landing; and they never let the reckless and flamboyant behaviour of Lana cloud their affection for her. When conflict between Lana and Jude begins to unravel the trio, it is Catrin and her parents who don’t give up hope of darning the hole.
Cleverly constructed in flashback, with different characters taking up the story telling in each chapter, we observe and anticipate how each act, each thought, will impact these ordinary people living ordinary lives. Ordinary does not equate with dull, however, and there are many moments of shock and sadness, of tenderness and torment, tears and chuckles, which keep the pages turning.
Jones’s characters are deeply recognisable from the streets of small Welsh towns, familiar but not cliched, their dialogue is authentic and audible; and despite their many flaws, they remain likeable. While the three of the title are of course pivotal, their parents, lovers, children and even the priest, are by no means insignificant or two dimensional. Men and women are insightfully written and refreshingly distant from stereotype. The effect of this is a full submersion into a community, a distinctly Welsh one, full of directness and curiosity; one where we would be welcomed, fed and watered upon arrival.
The many personal challenges that the girls face as they grow into women are normal things that everyone faces. Love, sex and death, ambitions and anti-climaxes, secrets and lies, childhood and motherhood. Things that we may recognise from our own stories, and from the deep friendships we have with others: all-encompassing at the time, but soon coped-with, subsumed into our lifelong landscapes. Jones delivers the dramas with a nice littering of cliff hangers but without hyperbole, always aiming for realism as the women respond to the curve balls and curtain calls of their lives. She offers a study in growth and resilience and how the passage of time shapes their ambitions and their own measurements of success.
The progress of the book took time to get going, as the setting of scenes and introducing the cast was detailed, but the feeling of impatience disappeared as we took off for Greece. The trip, littered with tastes and sights which were tangible, lifted the characters off the page and out into the Greek sunshine. From that point on I was hooked.
Ultimately, Ruth Jones tells a satisfying tale very well. In a world all at sea, it is a comfort to read a world so full of emotion and empathy, so familiar and yet so distant right now. Friendships are under pressure like never before, and if there is time in our lives to cwtch down and get lost in the hiraeth of this tale, we may remember that true friends will endure it all.