Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: honno (Page 1 of 2)

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

Historic elections and women’s suffrage – a review of Juliette Greenwood’s The White Camelia

This week we have witnessed an historic election. For the first time, we faced the heady prospect of a woman president of the United States. I am disappointed that day did not dawn, as are many around the globe. But it will. One Day. Nothing is more certain.

One of the more shocking aspects of watching the American election campaign unfold (apart from violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and bigotry becoming normalised) was the Wear White to Vote movement. Seeing the image of a women strutting up to the polling booth in a white pantsuit brought the horrifyingly, recent never-take-it-for-grantedness of women’s franchise home to me. You see, I have never known a world in which I could not vote. In my grandmother’s day (yes, recently as that) these rights would have been denied me. It seems appropriate therefore in the wake of this tumultuous week, that we cast our eyes back to the women who made this breakthrough possible.

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Fortunately, for me this has been easy. I had a copy of Juliette Greenwood’s, The White Camelia, on my reading pile. An historical novel depicting the struggles of the suffrage movement, which is, incidentally, published by Gwasg Honno a Welsh feminist press that seeks to redress the gender imbalance in publishing. An all round excellent reason to part with your hard earned cash.

Set in 1909, The White Camellia tells the story of two women whose lives are linked by, Tressillion, a decaying Cornish estate, their connection through The White Camellia Tearooms and The Suffrage League of Women Artists and Journalists. Both the tearooms and the League are fictitious, Greenwood tells us, but they firmly are based on “the many ladies’ tearooms and suffrage movements that gave women their first taste of independence and allowed them to campaign over decades to improve women’s lives.” And although you may have seen Suffragette you will be shocked by the brutal sexism these women encountered.

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If reading about a book about the suffrage movement, which has been published by a feminist press, is not enough to send you clicking over to your favourite online bookstore, the Cornish setting of this novel may tip the balance (yes, Australia is still caught in Poldark fever). For as well as being a novel about women’s franchise, The White Camellia is also a story of family secrets. Of the successful business woman Sybil, whose links to the Tressillion estates are long and bitter and of, Bea, a younger daughter of Tresillion House, who is being forced by tragedy and economic circumstance into marrying a cousin who has little regard for her. The story is told from their roughly interchanging viewpoints and has a cast of excellent Welsh supporting characters — Madoc, Harri, Olwen, and Gwenllian. As the family story unfolds and the abandoned Tressillion mine whispers the promise of gold, a violent train is set in motion, one that threatens the interconnected lives of the women whose lives have been empowered by The White Camellia Tearooms.

This is an eminently readable book and has the happenstance of being not only historical but so very current. Why not buy a copy, read about the struggle, and then go to bed dreaming about a future in which a woman will be elected president of the United States.

Hwyl am y tro!

 

Reading in two languages

When I left Wales, I knew my language ability would cease to climb. I’d not lose the ability to speak (albeit haltingly) but the angle of my upward trajectory would be less acute. This was inevitable, I told myself, despite the opportunities I’d carve out for myself. But I would make an effort to read in Welsh regularly. Which is why, when I received a reviewing copy of The Seasoning, by Mannon Stefan Ross, I decided to read, Blasu, the acclaimed Welsh language version first. An odd way of reviewing a book but, hey, why not?

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I struck out boldly. Trying not to look up every unknown word but to glean meaning from the surrounding sentences. I’d done this with Bethan Gwanas’ book, I Botany Bay (yes, a book about a Welsh convict) and Zonia Bowen’s autobiography, Dy bob Di Fydd fy Mhobl i,  as well as the multiple other learner’s titles, I’d read over the years. My preference being to read and enjoy a text, whatever my ability, rather than turn it into a translation exercise.

Blasu/The Seasoning is a story about an elderly woman, Pegi,  who is asked by her adult son to write down her memories. I could see, by flicking through the book, that these would be based around recipes. All well and good but, due to my snail-pace Welsh, it took me a while to realise the novel would be changing viewpoint every chapter, that the memories recorded were not in fact Pegi’s but the memories of others in relation to her. Quite a unique way to tell a story and beautifully rendered but by about the fourth chapter, I realised I was missing some of the nuances. I would enjoy this more, I old myself, if I read chapter-by-chapter, in Welsh and English.

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The ensuing chapters were a delight (this is the official review part of this blog). My mouth watered on reading the recipes and I found seeing the context in which Pegi had come by them poignant. Added to which, the story was set in Llanegryn, a tiny Welsh village not far from Corris, in which local landmarks such as Bird Rock, were familiar to me. As I read, each alternating-chapter, I found the story disturbing, uplifting and shocking by turns. For Blasu/The Seasoning is not a feel good novel. It is a literary novel, tackling the subject of mental illness and memories and how to live with horrifying once-made decisions. A thought provoking book, in any language and, if you do not speak Welsh, Honno’s English language version, Seasoning, is definitely worth obtaining.

However, I must say, as a language exercise the alternating chapter approach was flawed. I found myself leaping into bed more eagerly on the English nights, than the Welsh. In fact, by the time I got to Chocolate Popcorn chapter, I was too caught up in the story to bother. I gave myself over to the English version in full abandon and, although it is a sad, shocking, story, it also contained love and redemption. When I turned the last page, I did not want to let the characters go.

So, what is the moral of the story? If you are a non-Welsh speaker and want to read a thought provoking book set in north-west Wales, The Seasoning is recommended. If you are a Welsh learner and want to read Blasu as a language exercise, go for it, but do not under any circumstances keep a translation in the house. It is far too tempting. Better to save that one-click option until you’ve turned the final page. Then you can honestly say you enjoyed the book twice as much as you’d expected.

Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel

One of the things about claiming your Welshness late in life is that there is so much to learn. You accept the fact. You have missed out on a whole lifetime of knowledge – about flora, fauna, history, language, social customs. You know you can never fully belong, those formative experiences are lost, forever. Yet, for some perverse reason, it still comes as a shock, to realise there are things about Wales you simply never knew. In this instance, I am talking about artists, or specifically one artist. Gwen John. You would think  having lived in an artist’s residence for seven months, I’d be all over the topic. But I’m not. At least, I wasn’t, until I read Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

Girl in Profile is primarily told from a shifting first person female point-of-view, but it also has some short male epistolary segments. The overall effect – quirky and humorous, with an adventurous use of metaphor and simile that gives the reader a kind of head spinning, like wow, like this is amazing type sensation.

The opening viewpoint character is Gwen John, a Welsh artist who was born in 1876. Having lost her mother at an early age, Gwen John moved from Haverfordwest to Tenby, where she was raised by her two aunts, who were strict Salvationists. In 1895, she began to study art at Slade School of Art, the only school in the U.K. that then allowed female students. She won the Melville Prize for figure composition in her fourth year. In 1903, Gwen John travelled to France and shortly afterwards began modelling for the much older sculptuor Auguste Rodin. She became his lover (as you do) her passion for him continuing unabated for ten years. Unfortunately, Rodin’s passion abated far sooner (as it often does). The novel opens with Gwen John pining for Rodin.

Gwen John’s viewpoint is juxtaposed against the modern day viewpoints of Elizabeth, an elderly woman, suffering dementia, who lives in a care home in Tenby, largely ignored by her distinguished children, and who is writing letters to an American prisoner on death row. Here is how Elizabeth describes her self. 

“Constrained in every decade I’ve been. Stoned in my teens; pregnant and insecure in my twenties; husband, two children and a springer spaniel in my thirties; midlife crisis in my forties; age-defying creams and faradic machines in my fifties; and now in my sixties losing my marbles.”

The third viewpoint character is Moth, a mother of two young children Roan and Dove who was Miss Carmarthen at twenty two and devoted to her children. Though, she is considering having an affair with her son’s art teacher Adam:

“He’s wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, same as me. No visible tattoos. He’s not the kind of guy to have a tattoo. Drew’s (her husband) got “Moth” on his chest and “Roan” and “Dove” on either wrist. Looks plain dirty if you ask me, and imagine when you’re old. I drew the line, with a full stop at piercings. We’re his heart and arms, he says. Load of crap. It’s just his tribalistic, sadomasochistic, look-at-me way of displaying us. Branding. Establishing ownership rights. If you name it, you.”

Girl in Profile is a literary novel, rather than a feel good book. But that doesn’t mean is it depressing. The novel explores the complexity of women’s choices – the ones who follow their passions and the ones who subsume them for the the love of their family. The poignant letters from the man on death row give us a sense of the life cycle – you’re born, you live you die. They also illustrate Elizabeth’s sense of pointlessness as her control is taken away by her institutionalisation and the disease that is eating away at her brain. 

I read each segment of the novel, unsure how the author was going to bring the story together. Then, I had this kind of ‘oh, wow’ lightbulb moment and found myself wanting to read the whole thing over. So, if you want a book to make you think, or a story to make your head spin, or a writer in whose audacious use of language makes you blink and marvel and chuckle, then head on over to Honno, the Welsh women’s press, and buy Girl in Profile by Zillah Bethel. 

 

Ghostbird – and interview with Carol Lovekin

I generally read books set in the past. I don’t mind those set half in the present and half in the past. Though my preference is definitely for the former. If I do read books set in the present they generally have a quirky, mystical element to them. Or are set in Wales. Which is how I found myself ordering a copy of Ghostbird. It popped up on my Facebook feed. I have to admit the cover intrigued me. As did the recommendation at the bottom:

‘Charming, quirky, magical.’ Joanne Harris.

I flipped over to the Honno site and read the blurb.

Nothing hurts like not knowing who you are. Nobody will tell Cadi anything about her father and her sister. Her mother Violet believes she can only cope with the past by never talking about it. Lili, Cadi’s aunt, is stuck in the middle, bound by a promise she shouldn’t have made. But this summer, Cadi is determined to find out the truth.

In a world of hauntings and magic, in a village where it rains throughout August, as Cadi starts on her search the secrets and the ghosts begin to wake up. None of the Hopkins women will be able to escape them.

Okay, so this was starting to sound like my kind of book. The magical quirky, present day hauntedness was happening in Wales. I ordered a copy. The book didn’t disappoint. It had rain and damp and overgrown gardens and village gossips, resonance with the mythical character Blodeuwedd, Welsh words, fierce original characters, a compelling story and clear, evocative prose. When I turned the final page, I flipped over to Google (as you do) and typed in the author’s name. Carol Lovekin had a blog and she sounded interesting. I shot her an email asking whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. She agreed.

I had been intrigued while reading Ghostbird to find that much of the viewpoint was carried by a fourteen-year-old girl. I wondered whether Lovekin, had ever thought she was writing for teens. Or indeed whether she had the market in mind when she was writing at all. Here is what she had to say to me:

At no point did I ever imagine myself writing YA. The truth is I’ve always been a bit snobbish about the genre. I’ve learned not to be, but it doesn’t mean I ever planned for Ghostbird to be marketed as a teen novel. And although the possibility of ‘cross-over’ was mentioned, to my publishers’ credit, they haven’t tried. If a young audience does read and enjoy my book, I’m delighted! I don’t mind who reads it.  It was always a novel for adults though. Cadi found me – I’m still unsure why. I have always had easy relationships with young women and girls; I like their fierceness and their courage. And I have strong granddaughters who continue to inspire me.

While reading Lovekin’s blog, I noticed that she didn’t initially realise that she was writing a ghost story. I asked her at what point she realised she was and how the realisation changed her approach. Also what aspects of the novel changed in the re-drafting process?

In the beginning, although I imagined the story with a ghost – Cadi’s baby sister – I wrote her only in brief vignettes. The initial idea was that the myth would be a whispered soundtrack. Once my editor read the complete draft she made it clear the ghost needed a bigger voice. I went away and wrote the ghost’s story in isolation. It was genuinely exciting and once it was done – and slotted into the main narrative – I realized, yes, I’m writing a ghost story! The notion pleased me hugely because I have ‘issues’ with genre and have never really been able to place my work outside of the ubiquitous ‘magical realism’ label. I don’t mind magical realism, I love it – I do get tired of it being appropriated by fantasy writers. Magical realism has very little in common with fantasy. Many things changed during the redrafting of the book, not least the title. And relationships between some of the characters changed too.

The book has a great connection to the landscape and also some very realistic spells and incantations. I wanted to know where they came from. Whether they were a product or research, or Lovekin’s own spirituality?

Ah… The ‘witch’ question! Everyone wants to know ‘where it all comes from’ and some people mistakenly assume I’m a pagan. I’m not – or if I am, it’s like my relationship with ‘fashionable’ and quite accidental! I am an eco-feminist and yes, I have decades of practice behind me. I know my ‘craft’ so to speak; therefore no research was needed with regard to Lili and her ‘powers.

Photograph: Janey Stevens

 

A committed feminist, Lovekin’s characters have an uneasy relationship with the story of Blodeuwedd. Here is what Lovekin had to say about her own relationship with the text:

When I first read The Mabinogion I was struck by the notion that to be turned into a bird could be considered a curse. Initially and purely as an exercise in reclaiming her for feminism, I rewrote Blodeuwedd’s story from her point of view; made her angry and potentially vengeful. I gave Blodeuwedd her voice if you like. Years later, she was still there, haunting me and one day I quite literally woke up and I had Cadi. Fully formed and in complete agreement with me that Blodeuwedd deserved a better fate.

I asked Lovekin how she balanced her love of Welsh mythology against the perceived misogyny in the Mabiniogi?

I don’t address or try to make sense of the misogyny in mythology and legend; or in fairy tales for that matter. I have always enjoyed picking them apart and as I’ve already mentioned, reclaiming them. ‘

When it was first published in 1992, I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and I found myself enchanted. She presented me with a whole new way of looking at myth and fairytale which chimed perfectly with my feminism. Goddess is a metaphor for me – the perfect metaphor for the Land and I do believe that once the divine feminine power was diminished, humanity was the loser.

Finally I asked how writing the next book was going.

I’m finding it interesting and a little daunting. There is an expectation – there’s bound to be: people read and like a book and want more. Hopefully they will be happy with more of the same because I’m writing another ghost story. (I have to get it past my editor first of course!) I hope my perspective remains the same: the writing is what matters. It’s the cake so to speak and ‘being published’ is the icing. It’s always about the creative process – with maybe a bit more urgency this time? If writing ever became unenjoyable, I would stop.

I, for one hope she doesn’t stop. I am already looking forward to her next charming, quirky, magical, eco-feminist ghost story set in Wales. But I think Lovekin’s philosophy is the takeaway for me. The creatve process is what matters. Being published is merely the icing on the cake. It is the point I bring myself back to every time I sit down to write. 🙂

Blog twenty-seven o Gymru – completing the Howarth family circle

I have blogged about Judith Barrow's books Pattern of Shadows and Changing Patterns in earlier posts. Imagine my pleasure therefore on visiting the Honno office in Aberystwyth to be given a reviewing copy of Barrow's latest book Living in the Shadows. Commencing during the Second World War, the first two novels told the story of the marvellously flawed Howarth family as they navigated the social and emotional landscape of wartime and post war Britain. This third book, set in 1969 and therefore not strictly an historical novel, is primarily told from the viewpoints of the original Howarth childrens' offspring, Victoria, Richard, William, Jacqueline and Linda. It brings the events put into motion during Pattern of Shadows to a shattering conclusion.

The setting of the story alternates between Ashford, a suburb on the edge of Manchester, and the fictitious (as far as I can tell) village of Llanroth in North Wales. Here are some of the things I liked about Living in the Shadows.

  • Meeting the same characters some eighteen years down the track
  • The way the old mill features in each of the novels
  • Getting a sense of how the war continued to shape people's lives in an ongoing sense
  • Especially in relation to people of German heritage living in post war Britian
  • An attempt to map changing perceptions in relation to gender roles and sexuality
  • Ditto the various reactions to rape and domestic violence
  • The detailed descriptions of sixties clothing and fashions (particularly Victoria's)

It is not an easy task for an author to skip some eighteen years and to pick up the story through thirteen (by my count) different points-of-view, about half of which are completely new, and to tell a story that follows a host of characters simultaneously and, at times, in different locations. Let alone to somehow make it work as a coherent whole. To meet this challenge, Barrow uses detailed chapter headings, giving us viewpoint characters' names, their location, day, date, and at times even the part of the day in which the action is set. She also employs the technique of introducing the character on a particular day and time and then telling what has happened in between by using flashback. Ordinarily, this would detract from the dramatic tension of the story as the reader already knows the character survived/coped/remained undetected (whatever the issue at stake) before the event actually happened. But with the enormous cast of viewpoints, storylines and locations, it is difficult to see how Barrow could have done it any other way. Although I hadn't read the earlier books for some time, I was able to easily identify the main characters and their back-stories without having to refer to the earlier installaments. Which means the story somehow worked in its own right. However, on another level, prior knowledge definitely made the book more satisfying to read. I would therefore recommend tackling this novel as part of a series, not as a single instalment.

In each of these novels, Barrow ends with her main characters living in Wales or heading back to Wales. A fact that I am acutely aware of as I approach my own return to Australia. Some of her Welsh characters use Welsh words though, I didn't get a clear sense of whether they spoke the language. Perhaps, this is an accurate depiction of being raised by parents from dros y ffin. Whether they did speak Welsh is, of course, irrelevant to the average reader and probably has no place in the story. But as I have a slight (cough) interest in the Welsh language, I wouldn't have minded knowing. Maybe Barrow will consider slipping me this piece of information? You know, just on the sly. 😉 I have absolutely no doubt that she knows the answer and could furnish me with a host of other background details about her characters. Perhaps, whilst she is at it, she could also reassure me that this will not be the last we hear of the Howarth family.

 

Blog sixteen o Gymru – the pleasures and pitfalls of reviewing

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Margaret Redfern’s novel, The heart remembers. In my review, I may have mentioned that I didn’t like the cover. This may have caused a squeeze of horror in the breasts of those who had produced the book. They may just have written, wanting to know what, exactly, I didn’t like about the cover. I might have mentioned that I’d seen the advanced publicity for the book and preferred the earlier image of a ship. At which point, the author may also dropped me a line, telling me why the advanced publicity cover was no good – historically inaccurate (shows how much I know). By this stage, I was kind of wishing I’d never mentioned the cover. But…that is one of the pitfalls of reviewing.

Or is it a pitfall?

I’d been contacted by the author of three books I had enjoyed immensely and, after agreeing never to talk about the cover again, I’d had the pleasure of discussing aspects of The heart remembers, with the author herself. I seized the opportunity and asked Margaret Redfern whether she would be willing to answer a few questions for my blog. I had, of course, already Googled her. I knew that she came from Yorkshire, originally. I also knew that she’d spent time living in Turkey, Lincolnshire and Wales. My first question was whether she considered herself Welsh.

Now in case you are thinking I’ve developed right wing, ultra-nationalistic tendencies, this questions had nothing to do with genealogy or citizenship and everything to do with Honno (her publisher’s) submissions policy. Gwasg Honno is an independent, cooperative press, established to raise the profile of Welsh women writers. To submit to Honno, you need to be Welsh or have strong links to Wales. I was curious to know which category Redfern belonged to. Here is how she answered the question.

“My connection to Wales was either happenstance or synchronicity – take your pick […] One of my nieces was working in Pembroke Dock and was homesick for Yorkshire. She is also my goddaughter. I went down to see her, I think 1999 – certainly Wales had just beaten England in the (then) Five Nations. It was around Easter, icy cold and snow of Tenby beach. I got out of the train, walked down to the beach, looked out over Carmarthen Bay, Goscar Rock and across to Worm’s Head, and was smitten. My niece went back to Yorkshire. A year later, I removed myself to Wales.”

The inspiration behind Redfern’s first book, Flint, came about through a similar process of synchronicity. She had left a very difficult job situation in Lincolnshire – and was working at Coleg Sir Benfro and had begun immersing herself in Wales’ history and culture.

“I was roaming around North Wales, poking around the castles and I was standing on the banks of the Dee reading the CADW booklet on Flint Castle. Remember I said I had run away from Lincolnshire to Wales? Well, there was a paragraph that sent shockwaves through my whole body. ‘300 men from the Lincolnshire Fens had been marched from Lincolnshire to Flint to join another 900 fossatores to start digging the footings and moat of the first of Edward 1’s concentric castles. Lincolnshire was stalking me!”

These days, Redfern describes herself as Welsh by adoption, her ‘passport’ written by the writer Nigel Jenkins who declared her ‘New Welsh’ the term Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams coined for those Sais who embrace Welsh culture and history. She was an awarded honours for MA in creative writing is from Trinity St David’s University. The first five chapters of Flint, written as part of her MA dissertation, were picked up by Honno and “the rest is history. Welsh history.”

For me, one of the most profound aspects of Redfern’s writing, is her universalist spiritual themes. She has somehow managed to write three novels that celebrate both the Islamic and Christian faiths without being preachy, prescriptive or sentimental. I asked her about the time she spent living in Turkey.

“I first went to Turkey in 1971. It was my first teaching post at private girl’s ‘lise’ (as in French lycée) in Adana, about twenty miles from Tarsus, of Paul fame, the ‘citizen of no mean city.’ We drove there, my first husband and me, in an A35 van stuffed full with belongings, setting out two weeks after I had passed my driving test. A terrifying experience, and hugely exciting, travelling across Europe into Turkey and through it, down to Adana in the far south. It was a far different Turkey from today’s tourist resorts: few private cars but huge TIR trucks and oxen-pulled carts and sheep herded through the centre of Ankara and terrible roads. I loved it. […] We took the girls to Konya for the Mevlana festival in early December, one year sleeping on the floor of a school room because there was ‘no room at the inn’. It was a very moving experience, nothing like the tourist attraction it has become, nor the clamouring pilgrimage of devout Muslims. Then, it was more a private experience, and a bit of a Road to Damascus for me. The words quoted in The storyteller’s granddaughter are very well known to Sufi Muslims: gel gel yenigel…come, come, come again, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.”

As a writer I am always interested in people’s writing process. Flint was Redfern’s first novel but it was not, infact, the beginning of her writing career. As a child she was a fan of the TV series: Voyage to the bottom of the sea.

I was so in love with the series, Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain Lee Crane that I transcribed every episode into story form. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I illustrated the stories with any clipping I got hold of, usually from the Radio Times – the programme details, rare stills…”

She went on to write romantic fiction for IPC magazines and later for Bella. After moving to Wales, she started following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Pembrokeshire gentleman whose Tour through Pembrokeshire was published in 1810. Her resulting articles were published in Pembrokeshire Life over the next six years. Flint, as I have already mentioned, was started as part of an MA in creative writing. I asked Redfern whether she was a plot-from-the-beginning writer and also how the whole writing and editing process works out for her.

“It is not possible to have than an idea of a character to begin with, in a long story. […] It’s like meeting someone for the first time. It takes time to get to know them, their complexities, their reactions…other writers say this, also that when what you write is not ‘in character’, it’s almost as if the character is there jogging your elbow and saying, ‘You can’t make me do that!’ It also makes it impossible to have a definite plot. There must be the idea of a start and finish but, as the characters develop, so they edge the narrative into new directions. To be honest, so does the research. Another little nugget, and another, and another, and suddenly there’s a whole new world view. As for editing! I cannot, try as I might, write a first rough draft and then edit. I have to revise and revise so that some days are spent on redrafting with hardly any new writing. Together with research, both chair-bound and out-and-about exploring, it all takes far too long. Sometimes I obsessively search for some tiny detail for hours – days – and it amounts to a few words in the text. I’ve said before that, contrary to advice, I use a camera to record scenes, weather, settings, information, and often use this instead of written notes – which I also make. So tips for emerging writers? Recognise the demands of different genre […] and never be without that notebook and pen/pencil but beyond that do what works for you.”

 

Some gems there for the writerly among us. “Do what works for you.” Is probably the key element – not only for novel writing, but for life in general. Though, I can certainly relate to Redfern’s inability to write a completely unedited first draft and, of course, the allure of historical research.

Maragaret Redfern’s three books: Flint, The storyteller’s granddaughter, and The heart rememebrs are all available through Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press. I cannot recommend them highly enough and, with Christmas coming up, they would be the perfect gift for any lover or Welsh history or, indeed, literary historical fiction in general.

 

Blog twelve o Gymru – don’t judge a book by its cover.

When a reviewing copy of The heart remembers arrived at Stiwdio Maelor, I ripped open the postal package, saw the cover – burnt orange and black with a group of modern, trail-rider type horsemen – and thought there must have been a mistake. The story was mean to be set in the fourteenth century Europe, wasn’t it?

I checked the author’s name: Margaret Redfern. The subtitle promised an incredible adventure across fourteenth century Venice, Ypres and Wales. So what had happened? I opened the cover, saw the familiar mediaeval frieze across the first chapter heading. I began to read. Found familiar beloved characters, Redfern’s poetic prose, a tactile evocation of setting. I thought, the first thing I will write in my review is: don’t judge this book by its cover.

Right. Having established that important detail, let’s move onto the review.

Late autumn, 1336, Welsh trader, Dai ap Heddwyn ap Rickert, and his band of travellers approach a fog bound Venezia, in a cargo ship ship under the command of the ruthless and ambitious Marco Trevior. The journey from Attaleia has not been without tension. Even so, the group of travellers are not prepared for the vicious quarrel awaiting them on the quayside. Or the violent train of events this quarrel will set in motion – events that will see them scattered from Attaleia to the English Fens, and across the Welsh Marches to the Mawddach in North Wales.

In keeping with Flint and The storyteller’s granddaughter, The heart remembers celebrates the universal nature of faith and humanity in a way that makes you want to start believing all over again.

‘We are a family now. Not through blood but through love and pain and struggle.’ Mehmi looked down at the cradled tanbur, his long lashes casting little shadows onto his sharp cheekbones. ‘I shall sing songs of this time, of the terror and storm of sea, and of how we escaped, each one helping his brother, whether Christian or Muslim.’

Throughout the narrative, Redfern shifts viewpoint with dizzying regularity. This could be disconcerting if you were looking for a recognisable main character with a clearly defined story arc. But if you bear in mind that ‘the group’ is protagonist in this story you will not be disappointed. For although, Dai, the picaresque leader of the group does not change greatly, his companions do. Their actions force a final decision on him that is quite out of character. This leads to a climax that is both devastating and ultimately satisfying.

The heart remembers is a beautiful book – a celebration of life and faith and all that is good in humanity. It is a fitting sequel to The Storyteller’s granddaughter and the narrative Redfern so beautifully set in motion in Flint. And although Will the Wordsmith’s tale comes a full circle, I wonder whether the author may not be finished with this rich Welsh story seam. It may simply be wishful thinking but I fancy she may have hinted at a continuation of this family’s story towards the end of the novel:

‘There’ll come a day,’ he said, ‘when there’ll be a man to lead us. A man of courage and honour. When that day comes – and come it will – all who long to be free from tyrants, all the little men and women of this country will rise with him, and follow him.’

I for one hope that is a hint and that Redfern is up to her elbows in research as I write this blog. But whatever the case, we can look forward to future novels that celebrate goodness and human brotherhood in singing prose as The heart remembers does so beautifully. This book is worth reading, despite its modern trail riders and burnt orange and black cover. In fact, if you haven’t already done so why not start at the beginning of the series. Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press has a number of its titles on sale this month.

If you are in a Australia and reading this, Honno is having a massive Amazon Australia Spring sale.


Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

Changing Patterns picks up the lives of the Howarth family in 1950, soon after the events with which Barrow concluded her earlier book Pattern of Shadows. We are allowed a brief moment of happiness before a single tragic event upsets the whole balance and the family are thrown into chaos. Old secrets return to threaten the fragile post war peace the Howarth family have found.

The story moves along at a locomotive pace leaving the reader with a breathless, page turning desire to see what happens next. I resisted the urge to flick ahead and, as I was tucked up in bed with a virus, I let myself indulge in a serious reading binge.

At the core of the novel’s plot is the Shuttleworth family. As George Shuttleworth takes up his brother Frank’s twisted mantle the Howarth family’s decisions in relation to the war and the people they have come to love are once again threatened.

Throughout Changing Patterns, Barrow tackles issues of post war prejudice. She also continues to explore the dymnamics of marriage and family. I particularly enjoyed the imperfections inherent in each marriage as well as the petty annoyances between sisters and friends. As each character grew, faced challenges and made peace with their situation, Barrow somehow made her characters real. My only disappointment on turning the final page was that I wouldn’t get to spend anymore time with this wonderfully, flawed family.

As mentioned in my earlier blog, I am still not convinced the final four chapters in Pattern of Shadows belonged in the first book. I would love to have seen them in real time at the beginning of this sequel. However, having seen this possibility, and the fact that the two novels work well despite the chapter placements, has taught me a valuable lesson. There is more than one way to tell a tale. In the end, as long as the story works, the author has made the right decision.

 

Pattern of Shadows – Judith Barrow

Having just recovered from an upper respiratory tract infection, you will imagine my horror when I found my husband had returned from a work trip, carrying another version of the sniffly, snotty, headachey and generally laid-low versions of the virus. We are now both sitting in front of the fire like a pair of old crones having had to cancel a swather of eagerly anticipated events. The only consolation in this whole gloomy picture (apart from re-watching Poldark episodes) is that I get to read and read and read some more. To aid my recovery, I decided to indulge myself in a couple more titles from Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

Judith Barrow’s, Pattern of Shadows, is set in the North of England during World War Two. It tells the story of Mary Howarth, the sensible hard working daughter of Bill and Winnifred Howarth, who is nursing sister in Granville, a nearby prisoner of war camp. Mary’s eldest brother, Tom, is in prison while her other brother, Patrick, is forced to work in the mines. Her younger sister, Ellen, simply wants to have a good time with her American G.I. boyfriend, Al. When Frank Shuttleworth, an embittered returned soldier, enters their lives, the family’s patterns are set to change. Though, none of them can forsee the trail of events that will unfold. Or anticipate how new, forbidden, relationships will test to their loyalties.

As my parents were both children in the UK during the Blitz, I grew up on stories of World War Two Britain. But only during the last few years – thanks to Foyle’s War, Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh girl, and a prevalence of Italian ice cream shops in South Wales, have I come to realise how many prisoner of war camps there were in Britain during this time. Pattern of Shadows, explores what it would have been like to work in such a camp, deftly handling themes of prejudice towards prisoners, conscientious objectors, and others who were at odds with the political mood of the day. Written primarily from Mary Howarth’s third person point of view, the descriptions of working class daily life are detailed and realistic. Her attitudes towards Frank Shuttleworth and her father are consistent with the times. Though, as a modern woman, I wanted to shout no, don’t put up with it! Go to the police! on more than one occassion.

The novel occasionally shifts viewpoint and, at times, these shifts aren’t seamless. I found myself having to re-read sections. There was also a tendency to use flash back when a straight linear narrative may have created more dramatic tension. But these are merely quibbles. The story worked well despite them.

I thought the novel had finished at the end of chapter seventy seven. I was surprised to find, I had four more chapters left to read. These jumped ahead to 1950 and my first thought was that they belonged in the sequel. However, that was not the author’s decision. She, no doubt, has a different tale to tell in Changing Patterns. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

 

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