In her disappointing and superficial grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, American writer and essayist Joan Didion commented that “We tell ourselves stories to go on living.” The characters in Newport writer Gary Raymond’s new and accomplished novella, The Golden Orphans, take an opposite tack – they tell stories and keep on dying. Or at least, they do so in sufficient numbers to establish the point that this is the perilous territory proper to a thriller; and a thriller is exactly what this compact and resonant narrative is. It’s a distinguished one too. When I’d finished it, I turned straight back to the beginning and read it through again, just to check on the hanging threads and unresolved plot-lines that most thrillers drag behind them across the ground they cover, to tease after our desire for superhuman perfection and completion.
“The Welsh thriller” is an odd genre. It started well: Oliver Onions’ harrowing The Tale of Ragged Robyn – a masterpiece of paranoia that should be included in the Library of Wales series; the closet-paedo fantasisings of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica; Ron Berry’s Faulknerian So Long, Hector Bebb – they could all be dragged in to make up the complement. But in recent years the genre’s degenerated to the archness of Malcolm Pryce’s spoof Aberystwyth Noir series, which should have been issued as graphic novels, or the dull Wales Book of the Year-winning last-days-of-Ceausescu novel from Patrick McGuinness, which did anything but thrill by its perhaps-projective obsession with Macchiavellianism among “Very Important People”.
The Golden Orphans is much better than these self-conscious, over-hyped efforts, and more skilfully and lucidly written too. One of the dangers of living in a small nation is that we tend to inflate reputations, send them soaring on gusts of hyperbole, and then look away in embarrassment as they inevitably come crashing back to earth. The quality of Raymond’s story-telling suggests this won’t happen, and that his literary trajectory is likely to be sustained. The novel’s set in Cyprus. Its plot hinges on the long effects of that island’s 1974 partition, the crucial action taking place in the ghost-resort of Varosha. It’s underpinned by a quality of classical mimesis too, the story’s denouement borrowing from Oedipus Rex and hinting elsewhere at the story of Aphrodite.
But these devices, rather than being labored, are given fresh currency, the myths vitally re-spun into contemporary emotional webs anchored to vivid character realisations. Jocasta becomes Tara, the wisdom of millennia engraved across her lined and changing face, her fate remaining the same. There is a Jungian quality to Raymond’s re-working of ancient myth, each of his characters sketching out their own mandala to enact through the novella’s brief span. In the central plot device, the narrator – a heavy-drinking artist-on-the-slide from London whose name we do not learn – is offered lucrative, opportune employment to paint the dreams of a rich Russian, one of a mysterious, holed-up clan who revel in comic-book names like Illie, Evgeny, Viktor, Darya and Dina.
To paint his dreams..? It’s one of several points in this remarkable little fiction when the literal quakes beneath our feet and tremors of the old gods shake our sense of reality. But a few stiff vodkas or vintage Cognacs (the drinking in this book is at a Simenon level) soon reassert thriller-reality realm, albeit having introduced another frisson or two in the brief moments of suspensive doubt. The two blonde sisters Dina and Darya – remember General Sternwood’s daughters in The Big Sleep? Here are their pubescent analogues, gearing up to make mischief in a later, different world. Chandler is one of many phantom presences smiling down benignly, knowingly, on the blind stumblings of our dream-painting hero. And this latter’s implicit role, as he slashes at his innumerable and unsatisfactory canvases, is the revelatory function of art – as mirror and insight and endlessly resonant, endlessly repeated story.
It’s so rare to read a contemporary fiction that somehow expresses the hovering presence of mythical truths behind the more squalid posturings, graspings, fumblings and disappointments of the everyday actual. That was perhaps the brief behind Seren’s generally disappointing re-tellings of The Mabinogion stories. On the strength of this performance, I’d say they should have offered one of the commissions to Gary Raymond. He would viscerally have understood.
The Golden Orphans is available now from Parthian.
Gary Raymond and Dai Llewelyn will be discussing the art of the literary thrill in their new novels at Cardiff Book Festival on Sunday September 9th.