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Wales Book of the Year shortlist review: The Unbroken Beauty of Rosalind Bone by Alex McCarthy

23 Jun 2024 4 minute read
The Unbroken Beauty of Rosalind Bone by Alex McCarthy is published by Penguin

Catherine Davies

This multi-layered novella by Alex McCarthy is weightier than its slim form suggests.

It portrays a South Wales Valleys community in all its complexity and presents us with similarly complex relationships within it – notably that of sisters Mary and Rosalind.

Rather than a mere celebration of female beauty, it’s an exploration of its toxicity.


They say not to judge a book by its cover and this cover with its prettily springlike palette and portrait of a graceful female figure, is at odds with the darkness of the book. It is ironic.

The significance of the name of the village ‘Cwmcysgod’ (‘Shadow Valley’) becomes immediately apparent in the opening pages when we are confronted with the delinquent Clements brothers who are delighting in the devastation their fire is causing to the mountain above.

Ravens rise up and flee in fear at the boys “joyous consumption of hillside”. All is clearly not well in this Valleys community. The plumes of smoke form a shadow over the valley below.

The action moves between 1978 and 2001 and we see that the past is ever-present, throwing another shadow over the beautiful valley.

The death of her beloved father in a pit disaster in 1978 is followed by the disappearance of the titular 16-year-old Rosalind whose beauty is a curse rather than a blessing.

She is ostracised by the female factory workers where she works because her beauty sets her apart from them.

She is the object of desire for the men, including her boss and the object of the perverted desire of a paedophile as a child. Beauty comes at a terrible cost.

“Alone, away from the press of eyes, she pretends her flesh can fall away and she can rise, like Blodeuwedd, her soul inside a new flower-body…”

Her bid for freedom in the wood is rudely interrupted by the pit’s siren signifying a disaster – a disaster which has claimed her father.

Sibling rift

Her absence in the village when she does finally run away casts another shadow over the decades that follow and the rift between her and her sister leaves them both living half-lives.

The relationship is mirrored by that of the Clements brothers who have become increasingly feral after another father’s death – theirs by suicide. Another shadow.

The Rosalind finds herself in the wood where she is not defined by her beauty – or imprisoned by it.

The freedom she finds there is powerfully suggested here: “Water flows, air moves and Rosalind lives…In the turn of each season, she sees death and rebirth, and this cellular transformation is of not matter, and of all matter, for the days go on.”


There is a strong feminist theme of female survival and search for identity and, thereby, true beauty. However, we also see the callousness of female gossipers driven conspiratorially by spite and jealousy.

There are echoes of the lyrical and comic beauty of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood’ here as this community too harbours dark secrets and can be in turn both lethal and lovely.

The writer skilfully adopts a complex structure moving effortlessly between the decades, reinforcing the liquidity of time.

The lyricism of her descriptive passages for example when she tenderly describes nature, contrasts sharply with the hard – brutal, even – language peppered with the ‘f’ word in the Clements boys’ speech.

Mountains on fire

This is a Valleys town on Steroids. The characteristics are heightened for dramatic effect. While it is not totally realistic it does resonate strongly with me.

Coming from Aberdare I knew people like this and saw mountains on fire but elements like the Mrs Williams octogenarian drug dealer perhaps strain credibility – entertaining though they are!

Compelling tale

I found this to be a gripping and compelling tale with the relationship of two sisters is at its heart, rather like Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’ where the separation of the siblings renders them too lost.

She has skilfully crafted her novella. Each word is measured carefully. Short sentences betray a poetic brevity. She can be lyrical but does not shy from urban, brutal grittiness when she needs it.

In her small volume she says much about nature, industry, the past and the present, community and family but most of all the nature of beauty and identity.

While there is much heartbreak hope wins out in the end. If the book has a message, it is ‘refuse to be defined by others’ shallow assessments of you and be brave enough to find yourself.’

The Unbroken Beauty of Rosalind Bone by Alex McCarthy is published by Penguin and is available from all good bookshops.

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