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Archive for April, 2010

Skirrid Hill (2005)
Owen Sheers
Seren Books, 52pp

Welsh poet, Owen Sheers, first came to my attention through his novel of wartime resistance, aptly titled Resistance, in which the South Wales valleys were invaded by German soldiers. He is, however, better known for his poetry – predominately this collection, Skirrid Hill, which won a Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Award, and bought acclaim from poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and wide press approval.

Sheers was born in Fiji, but raised in Abergavenny, and this duality is the first of many divides that echo throughout his collection. The word Skirrid, as Sheers notes, is derived from Ysgyrid, a derivation of Ysgariad, the word for divorce of separation. This is the second divide. In a series of poems that clearly draw upon personal experience, Shears explores all manner of divides: physical boundaries, particularly the Welsh/English border, the separation of his family, of love, of city and nature, past and present. It is also a collection with an international flavour: it visits Los Angeles, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Paris.

It has been noted that Skirrid Hill has a tauter form than Sheers’s debut, The Blue Book, for here the central motif of this imposing, inspiring peak: he says of it, in the final poem in this collection:

“Just like the farmers who once came to scoop
handfuls of soil from her holy scar,

so I am drawn to her back for the answers
to every question I have never known.”

Skirrid Fawr haunts every poems separation, divorce, meeting, longing. The ruptured terrain reflects Sheers’s internal life, and the lives of others, so precisely. This is a suggestive, emotive volume that marks Sheers out as quite probably the best poet in Wales, and one of the strongest in the country, and one suspects brighter things are ahead of him still.

I wish I could say more on this beautiful volume; that I could explicate in greater detail my feelings on it, but it has been a while since I finished reading it, and have read more since. Now it is not that its details have already faded – some of the poems here still percolate in my subconscious – but that I have too much distraction at present to think clearly, and for now this rather feeble review will have to pay testament to such a grand work.

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The Name of the Wind (2007)
Patrick Rothfuss
Gollancz, 662pp

A friend recommended The Name of the Wind to me a while back, then took time bringing me a copy to read. When he handed it to me, he urged me to stop reading whatever else I was, and to begin on this immediately. The best fantasy novel in decades, he said. I know I listened to Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic a few months ago, so The Name of the Wind isn’t my first foray into fantasy since my youth – but Pratchett’s is a comic world, wonderfully created, but a comic world nonetheless. The Name of the Wind presents me with a realised authentic world, though one with dragons and magic.

I say I used to read fantasy: as a young teenager, some eighteen odd years ago now, I feasted on writers such as Terry Brooks, Lloyd Alexander etc, and wrote my own fantasy series (the first volume of which I still have buried away somewhere), and so I know the routines of fantasy well, the attempts at verisimilitude that must go into such a work for it to sing true. Rothfuss, I soon discovered, has that down brilliantly – his world is breathing, living. I soon found myself swept up by the adventures of Kvothe – an archetypal hero who, in this the first volume of a much larger novel (the second part is still being written), fulfils the fantasy trope: expert fighter, magician and all-round good guy. We see him battling the mysterious scrael, spider like creatures who attack at night – and then he rescues a wandering scribe, and soon begins to tell his story. This is the brilliant note of Rothfuss’s work – that he sets up what we think will be the adventure, and then takes us right back to the boyhood of this hero, and shows what maketh the man. The bulk of this novel is reminiscences of days gone by, mostly at the university: during much of this I was constantly reminded of the Harry Potter series; the University is Hogwarts. There is the same mix of brilliant, frightening and aloof teachers, and the same mixture of sweet girls, bullies and outcasts. It is possible that Rothfuss has identified a need in the market – those weaned on Harry Potter need something more adult to move onto, and The Name of the Wind could easily be it.

If there is one thing missing from Rothfuss’s work, though, it is that of a villain. Kvothe’s feud with fellow student Ambrose, though escalating towards murderous levels, is not the major hook we need. If we continue the Harry Potter comparison: that series had Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents. This series has the Chandrian, a race from long ago, memorialised in nursery rhymes, who killed Kvothe’s parents. Kvothe attends university to learn more about the Chandrian, but only once in this six hundred page narrative do they show themselves – near the beginning, when they commit their act of murder. Another murder, near the end of the book, sends Kvothe off on a quest to find the Chandrian, but they never appear, and such it felt somewhat anticlimactic.

But then Rothfuss brings up back to the present, and attack on the public house in which Kvothe is telling his story – and we are reminded of the scrael, and that demons may be rising in the land once more. It strikes me that Rothfuss has two stories on the go here: one, the story of how Kvothe became a hero, and two, the returning of the darkness. They, will, I am sure, collide in the final volume. For that is the biggest problem: in those fantasy stories I used to read, each volume was self-contained while being part of a larger narrative. This is one narrative, and all we have is the first chunk of it. The true strength of Rothfuss’s story cannot be judged until all three volumes have been read: and since the second is not yet complete, that final judgment will most likely be a decade in coming.

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Juliet, Naked (2009)
Nick Hornby
Penguin Books, 249pp

I wrote a novel a few years back – The Inheritance of Things Past – and as I read pages of it out at a creative writing seminar at university, I was told I was very Hornby-esque. I know Hornby’s work – I had seen the films of Fever Pitch, About a Boy, and High Fidelity and recently saw An Education, for which he wrote the screenplay – and yet I had never read him. When Juliet, Naked, his sixth novel was published in 2009 I read the reviews and felt I could see where those comments in that creative writing class had come from. To have even a miniscule amount of the success Hornby has had with his fiction for my own, well it would be an honour. For that first novel of mine, I accept the Hornby comparison, for reading Juliet, Naked, I could sense the familiar, though my later fiction is most definitely not Hornby-esque.

Juliet, Naked then. Annie and Duncan live in the town of Gooleness – a town whose name instantly conjures images of the drab seaside towns of the north – where their lives move towards nothing, and Duncan continues with his obsession with an obscure, now forgotten musician, who released one great album, Juliet. Meanwhile, this obscure rocker, Tucker Crowe, is finding his own relationship failing. When an acoustic version of his most famous album is released, and Duncan raves about it online, a confluence of events brings the lives of these three improbables into contact.

Juliet, Naked is familiar – its set up, its delivery – there is nothing truly sophisticated here (though that is not a criticism), for the success of the book is in what Hornby does with the material. From what I can tell, Hornby is the master of the unexpected – his narratives never quite end up where you think they should be going. We know Tucker, for instance, will end up in Gooleness, and that he will share Annie’s bed – but the sequence of events that lead to it are surprising – as are the consequences of the decisions these people make.

Hornby’s tone is always light, conversational, and he invests his characters – and indeed their world, for Gooleness is precisely right, down to its museum with a dead shark eye – with enough pathos and warmth for us to care. It is often witty, sometimes the dark creeps in at the edges, but it never stays and in a world where two aged music fans are considered celebrities, entirely true. I don’t think there is a higher compliment I can pay Hornby’s work than that.

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My Neighbours (1920)
Caradoc Evans
Planet Books, 200pp

Caradoc Evans, a London based Welshman, a writer whose work was described as “literary filth” (by the Western Mail), is one of the great names of Welsh letters: and yet he is barely known in the twenty-first century, though his work is still in print.

My Neighbours differs from his most famous work, My People (1915) which was a collection of stories set in the Cardiganshire village of Capel Sion. It was a work that polarised public opinion; with many claiming Evans had betrayed his homeland. My People, like My Neighbours, was written in a highly stylised manner – Biblical in tone, for it was through translations of the Bible that Evans learnt much of his English. My Neighbours, however, is not localised in the way My People was: Evans’s aim is broader here. In the fifteen stories that make up My Neighbours, we are with the London Welsh, men and women ostracised or working away from their homeland.

There is only one recurring character in My Neighbours – God – and His influence is felt in all the people gathered here. Their suffering is amplified by their faith. There is a fundamentalism to these people. “David nursed his patience and then, full of misery, sent up a plea to God. He also put arguments in the mouth and money in the hand of a preacher, and the preacher bade God multiply the Welsh nation and listen to the cry of His religious little children.” That is from the story Wisdom, and it highlights the other consistent thread of this collection – politics. It extols a Welsh nation separate from England (though always obliquely). It is a story collection that seems timeless, revealing a group of people for whom the wider world is unnoticed – the stories in this collection were written during the First World War – and in London there were air raids, and danger, and yet none of this is evident. The London Welsh continue oblivious.

My Neighbours then, is a fine, if sometimes awkward collection – ones enjoyment of it is wholly dependent upon you accepting the stylised voice – that revels in the torture of faith and poverty; a work that uncovers a world long forgotten but whose political, and religious messages, are as indentured in the twenty-first century as they were at the beginning of the twentieth. Caradoc Evans is a great writer, and though this may not be his best work, it is never less than powerful.

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