In the latest of our look back at our Greatest Welsh Novel series, Emma Schofield espouses the qualities of a modern classic, by one of Wales’ most recognisable contemporary voices.
As with a number of the excellent novels featured in earlier nominations, I suspect that a vote in favour of Rachel Trezise’s 2000 novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl may raise a few eyebrows. Controversial from the start, this compelling novel tackles the topics of abuse, rape and childhood trauma on its often stormy rampage through life in 1990s South Wales. Yet in choosing a truly great novel, we sometimes have to recognise that outstanding literature may not always depict the world as we would like to see it. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is hardly a glowing endorsement of life in 1990s South Wales, instead it is a glimpse into the wilderness of the 1990s, a snapshot which neatly captures moments of hope and despair at a time of intense political and social turmoil in Wales.
Speaking in an interview with John Lavin in 2013 Trezise was keen to emphasise her belief that ‘life is multi-layered all the time; you need shadow and light to paint a complete portrait’, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl perfectly reflects this concept. The shadow in the novel is obvious from the outset; the first-person narrative traces the childhood and adolescence of Rebecca Trigianni as she struggles to cope with her mother’s alcoholism and a series of brutal sexual assaults which she suffers at the hands of her step-father, Brian. In keeping with the unconventional style of the novel there is no contrived happy ending; the problems Rebecca faces as a young girl cannot be entirely forgotten as she makes the transition to adult life. Yet their significance on her life dissipates, with the epilogue describing how these events of the past have gradually ‘dissolved’ leaving Rebecca able to move on to the next phase of her life. In contrast, the scars of industrial decline and economic difficulty evident in the novel’s depiction of the Rhondda are still as vivid at the novel’s close as they were in its opening, suggesting that more still needs to be done to overcome the social and financial problems which blight the area throughout the narrative.
It is not only the depiction of post-industrial Wales that gives this challenging novel a distinctive tone. The decision to tackle topics such as rape, childhood abuse, suicide and mental health issues was, inevitably, likely to prove controversial. Yet Trezise is not simply telling the story of Rebecca’s troubled life, she is giving voice to the many who struggle in silence against such problems. For readers perhaps one of the most uncomfortable facets of this narrative is the fact that it is semi-autobiographical. Trezise has always been hesitant to provide specific details about which aspects of her life survived the transition to fiction and which parts of the novel were developed during the creative process. What is clear is the rawness of the narrative, the sense that this is a story which, fictional or not, must be told. Here, Trezise and her complex protagonist are united in their perception of writing as a personal process, able to heal wounds inflicted in the past.
But where there is shade in the novel, there is also light. Rebecca’s narrative is essentially one of survival, more than that, it is a survival narrative generated solely by the female characters in the story. As Rebecca struggles to overcome her experiences of rape and sexual abuse, it is the figure of her terminally-ill grandmother who passes on her ‘gift-wrapped’ strength to her young granddaughter. Moreover, it is Rebecca herself who eventually realises that she has the power to take control of her own life, using her writing skills to further her recovery and build a future for herself. The development of this independent nature is not only key to Rebecca’s survival, but can also be read as representative of the unprecedented political step Wales was preparing to take at the narrative’s close in 1997 just prior to the referendum on Welsh devolution. The resilience Rebecca ultimately displays in the novel marks not only her personal development, but a powerful bond between character and country.
Similarly, one of the most striking features of the novel is the way in which it regularly offers insightful social observations amidst the turmoil of Rebecca’s life. In a particularly dry observation of life in 1990s Rhondda, Rebecca comments at one stage that ‘the problem with the Rhondda was the lack of choice’, cutting straight to the heart of the socio-economic problems of the decade.
I wanted so desperately to shatter the dreams of hometown people who only find respect for you if you give up the fight for originality. But if you stand out like a sore thumb, looking like you’re doing better than the next one, then someone will knock you down. How can you be the one to make the change in a place where nothing ever changes but the shoes?
Here Rebecca’s honesty and desire for change drive the narrative forward in this tumultuous novel as she moves through her school and college years in a haze of alcohol, sex and attempts to escape to other places. In the end, however, Rebecca always finds herself drawn back to Wales and the identity she cannot fully escape from. With her nation on the cusp of the post-devolution era, Trezise offered a story which reflected the Wales she had grown up with; her decision to tackle, not mask, the problems she had encountered is to be commended, not condemned. The fact that the novel is now included on the syllabus for Welsh Literature modules at a number of Welsh Universities is testament to the recognition it has received as a literary text of relevance to contemporary studies of Wales.
In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is a portrait created with a delicate blend of light and shadow, it is a distinctly Welsh novel and a great example of the strength of contemporary Welsh writing being produced in Wales at the moment. Yet it is more than that; it is a touching, and often heart-breaking, reminder of the obstacles too many face in modern life and of the difficulty we all sometimes experience in finding the strength to survive the problems life throws at us. A modern, multi-layered, nation facing social, economic and political turmoil demands fiction which is strong enough and original enough to represent those problems. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is that fiction, making it, indisputably, a keen contender for the title of the Greatest Welsh Novel.