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Wales Book of the Year shortlist review: Trothwy by Iwan Rhys

23 Jun 2024 4 minute read
Trothwy by Iwan Rhys is published by Y Lolfa

Jon Gower

The process of becoming a stepfather is central to this tender, nuanced book of non-fiction.

Trothwy (which means threshold) is an account of how the author meets a woman, Sioned who has two sons, Rhodri and Aron and goes through various stages of acceptance.

He slowly learns not only to fit into the family but to be a fulcrum within it.

In so doing it also considers the various ways in which being a step-parent are depicted, from the negative spin of Disney – where a stepfather or stepmother are often cruel beings – to the far more benign roots of the word in languages such as Irish and Breton.

Here the words for stepfather – leasathair and leztad – carry the suggestion of being a deputy. Trothwy is a gentle book, full of meditative passages on such things as the dynamics of families, emotional negotiations and playing darts.

It’s a book with a warm embrace, fully able to cwtch the reader, sharing the simple joys of acceptance and love.

It’s also a book which spans two distinct and very different places, both tourist magnets in their own ways, although very different when it comes to size.

The first is Caernarfon, and in particular the Twthill Vaults, a pub looked after by Chunk, one of the few people in the book who is referred to by his real name.

Chunk pours an excellent pint of Guinness and is clearly a welcoming mein host, overseeing the darts teams and generally keeping an orderly public house which seems to be the very definition of a good local.

Indeed, Trothwy promises to do for the Twthill Vaults what Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus did for Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar.

Regulars

We meet the pint-after-work crew, some in steel toecaps and high-vis vests, some covered with splashes of plaster or cement, wearing Openreach coats or Huws Gray hats, sinking their drinks swiftly before all heading for home at six o’clock.

Then there are the Tetley’s drinkers with piles of twenty pence pieces on the table as well as the dominos players and the football fans supporting Liverpool, Everton or Caernarfon.

One gets to appreciate the rhythms of the place and it certainly made me want to call in.

The second location for the author’s libations is Berlin, where the stepsons’ father lives.

Here the author finds the German equivalent to the Twthill Vaults in the shape of Meine Bar Ici, a no-frills French wine bar which doesn’t serve food but does allow its clientele to smoke so that each day the same man returns to puff on the self-same cigar, making it last.

Once again we get a sense of the place’s rhythms as the customers change as the day progresses, its location just a stone’s throw from the little park at Gipsdreick, the way the barman’s old Peugeot bike is tied to a post outside.

Emotional geography

Rhys slowly maps out the city as he gets to know it, taking the S-bahn and U-bahn and the city’s trams and noting the stickiness of the seating, much like the London tube.

We also take in some of the tourist locales, such as the Radio Berlin tower on Alexanderplatz, which was the fourth tallest building in the world when it was erected in the 1920s.

In this Trothwy reads a bit like a guide book as the reader takes in the sights alongside the author.

There is the big public park at Tiergarten, The Red Town Hall of Rotes Rathaus, the famous facade of the Brandenburger Gate and the Pariser Platz.

It’s like so much of the book, about settling in, getting to know the physical and emotional geography of a place.

Absence

The book calibrates the emotional journey of the author in a very measured way. We learn about the end of his first marriage and how keenly he feels the absence of his dog Jac after the separation.

And he takes us over the threshold of the book’s title into a new life, where the patterns of daily domesticity change as his relationship with Sioned expands into one with her sons as well.

It’s about finding lost shoes and coping with lockdown; it’s about the way in which language works in a three-language household and the taste of a greasy currywurst.

Unfussy in its language, openly honest in the telling, this is a very quiet book, and yet it whispers its presence in the mind long after reading the last pages.

Which, thankfully, contain a very happy ending.

Trothwy by Iwan Rhys is published by Y Lolfa and is available from all good bookshops.


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