In the latest instalment of our 100 Page Turners from Wales series, Emma Schofield introduces our panel’s selection of titles with the theme of ‘Romance’.
And so we’ve arrived at the ‘Romance’ category in our list of 100 page turners of Wales. If you’ve turned to this list expecting to find a compilation of cliched romances and silky prose, then this may not be the list for you. The books nominated by our judging panel in this category are gritty, funny, sad and satirical in equal measure; they cut straight to the heart of the complexity of romance and the fact that love all too often comes with a side order of heartbreak.
In Rebecca F John’s The Haunting of Henry Twist this heartbreak takes the form of grief and the limitations of love, while for Alun Richards, Home to an Empty House provides an opportunity to delve into the sense of confusion and frustration which accompanies the breakdown of a marriage which has become purely physical in its nature. There is very little romance on offer at all in the relationships which bored builder and rugby player Lewis experiences in Lewis Davies’ Work, Sex and Rugby. Yet the romance which is so notable by its absence in Lewis’ life, lurks constantly in the background of the novel as Lewis tries to match his feelings as a closet romantic with the reality of the casual relationships he forms in a bid to try and forget his love for former girlfriend Marianne.
There is, of course, still plenty of romance here for those who want to fall in love as they read. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet was such a pivotal moment in the mainstream publishing of lesbian fiction, with considerable media attention bestowed on the passionate sexual encounters which take place through the novel, that it is easy to forget the tenderness of the budding relationship which initially forms between Nan and Kitty. The same sense of tenderness, accompanied by a forceful pull of desire, runs throughout Stevie Davies’ novel, Awakening. Set in the 1860s and exploring the gradual awakening of two sisters, finding their way in a world whose scientific boundaries have recently been turned on their head by the publication of the Darwin’s The Origins of the Species. The novel charts the way in which the sisters’ personal lives become entangled with a growing sense of feminist awareness, conflicting religious views and shocking medical and scientific practices, as the story hurtles towards its gripping conclusion.
We complete our list with a completely different kind of romance in Mary-Ann Constantine’s 2015 Star Shot, in which romantic relationships are formed not only between characters, but in the mystical love which builds between protagonist Myra and the National Museum of Wales as the narrative unfolds. In this mysterious novel scientist Dan notes that ‘stars dissolve if you look at them directly’; the same might be said of the romance within the books on this list. There is something magical, powerful and magnetic about its pull, but all too often it is fleeting and elusive, leaving us, as readers, wanting more.
Country Dance, Margiad Evans (1932)
Synopsis: ‘Margiad Evans’ was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler, an English poet, novelist, and illustrator with a lifelong fascination with the Welsh border country. At the heart of Country Dance is Ann Goodman, a young woman torn by the struggle for supremacy in her mixed blood , Welsh and English. In this story of passion and murder set in the border country, the rural way of life is no idyll but a hard battle for survival.
‘Written with terse incisive power… the novels of Margiad Evans glow with a dark… passionate light.’ Derek Savage
‘Phenomenon in border country writing, and pretty rare in any writing.’ John Powell Ward
The Water Castle, Brenda Chamberlain (1964)
Synopsis: Brenda Chamberlain was born in Bangor and later settled in Caernarfonshire. The Water-castle is a journal of love, romance and discord in 1950s Germany as a Welsh artist and poet, Elizabeth Greatorex, travels with her French husband to meet her former lover Klaus, a German count. Elizabeth maps a frost- and snow-bound landscape of desire against the hardening borders of a newly divided Germany. In her revealing diary, she records her struggle to bridge the distance between Wales and Germany, East and West while considering her own mythologised past and real diminished present.
‘This is a work poised suggestively between a journal and a novel, autobiography and fiction, romance and political documentary, Welsh and European spaces, West and East, island and mainland selves.’ Damian Walford Davies
The Heyday in the Blood, Geraint Goodwin (1936)
Synopsis: Geraint Goodwin was a short-story writer and novelist from Wales. They Heyday in the Blood is set in the village of Tanygraig on the Welsh-English border and is the backdrop of this passionate novel of love and its consequences. Beti, the beautiful and willful daughter of a pub landlord, is pursued by two men: Llew, her aggressive, red-haired cousin, and Evan, the dreamy miller and would-be poet. She must make a choice, but it is not just her future that depends on her decision; for she and Tanygraig are positioned precariously on borders of class, nation, language, and changing times.
‘It has filled me with a sense of seeing great talent trying its first flight, which I have not experienced since reading D.H Lawrence s The White Peacock.’ Howard Spring
‘Explores issues of nationality, language and class with a humorous yet tragic story attached.’ Buzz Magazine
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters (1998)
Synopsis: Sarah Waters was born in Wales. Tipping the Velvet is a A saucy, sensuous and multi-layered historical romance, that follows the glittering career of Nan King – oyster girl turned music-hall star turned rent boy turned East End ‘tom’.
‘She is an extremely confident writer, combining precise, sensuous descriptions with irony and wit. This is a lively, gutsy, highly readable debut, probably destined to become a lesbian classic.’ Independent on Sunday
‘Waters in as author to cherish’ Justine Jordan, Guardian
‘Waters’ debut offers terrific entertainment: swiftly paced, crammed with colourful depictions of 1890s London and vividly sketched Dickensian supporting characters.’ Kirkus Reviews
The Haunting of Henry Twist, Rebecca F John (2017)
Synopsis: Rebecca F John grew up in Pwll, a small village on the south Wales Coast. Her first novel is set in postwar London where the Bright Young Things dance into dawn at garden parties hosted by generous old Monty, The Haunting of Henry Twist is a novel about the limits and potential of love and of grief. It is about the lengths we will go to to hold on to what is precious to us, what we will forgive of those we love, and what we will sacrifice for the sake of our own happiness.
‘These stories come from a deep, soul-like place of vitality, warmth and beauty… a prodigious writer of great intelligence and talent.’ Roshi Fernando
‘Quiet, moving, and guaranteed to leave an impression, The Haunting of Henry Twist is a tender, charming gem of a book’ Clare Wigfall
‘Rebecca F John’s prose is vivid, sparkling with intelligent observation.’ Sarla Langdon
A Thing of Nought, Hilda Vaughan (1934)
Synopsis: Hilda Vaughan is a welsh novelist. A Thing of Nought tells the story of Megan Lloyd. When her handsome lover Penry Price departs for Australia, to find work and build them a home, he is thwarted at every turn by drought, poverty and illness, and finally begs her to think of him as dead. Heartbroken and lonely, Megan succumbs to the attentions of strong-minded preacher Rees Lloyd, but is just married when an unexpected face returns.
‘This tender Welsh story… would be in actuality “A Thing of Nought” if Miss Vaughan had written it less skilfully and with less exquisite economy.’ The New York Times
Work, Sex and Rugby, Lewis Davies (1993)
Synopsis: Lewis Davies is a novelist, playwright and publisher whose novel Work, Sex and Rugby won the World Book Day Award for Wales. The plot follows young protagonist Lewis, keen on beer and girls and bored in equal measures by his job and club rugby. The problem is Lewis is a closet romantic, and life isn’t matching up to all he thinks it should be. All the beer, work, sex and rugby in the town aren’t enough to keep Lewis from missing his ex-girlfriend Marianne.
‘Captures a landscape of Kentucky fried chicken, piss-ups and stag nights in the valleys.’ Time Out
‘Well written… authentically portrayed.’ Western Mail
Awakening, Stevie Davies (2013)
Synopsis: Stevie Davies is a professor of Creative writing in her home-town at Swansea University. Awakening is set in Wiltshire in 1860 One year after Darwin’s explosive publication of The Origin of Species. The novel follow sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost who awaken to a world shattered by science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements, Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma. As each sister is riven by inner contradictions, who will survive when Anna and Beatrice fall into a fatal conflict with one another?
‘George Eliot would be impressed.’ The Historical Novel Society
‘Davies weaves this intricate web of faltering, painful relationships with great skill and writes very powerfully and movingly about the subtle half-tones and tentativeness of love, of childbirth, of loss as well as the horribly intrusive shock of male Victorian medical practice towards women.’ The Independent
‘These are the real histories… of those people who have been not so much forgotten by history as deliberately written out of it… You leave these pages feeling more fully conscious of yourself and the world around you than you did when you began them. What more can you ask for from a book?’ New Welsh Review
‘One of our most consistent and undervalued writers whose unsentimental, quietly revelatory novels have [continually] cropped up on the Booker and Orange shortlists.’ The Guardian
Home to an Empty House, Alun Richards (1973)
Synopsis: Alun Richards depicts the turbulent relationship of married couple Walter and Connie as the couple come to terms with the fact their marriage has lost its sparkle. Things come to a head when Walter is admitted to hospital with tubercolsis and the couple are forced to face obstacles including Walter’s long-term sickness, their differing personalties and a potential affair which looms over their marriage.
‘His people are real, rounded and running over with life… brilliance…’ Daily Telegraph
‘A crackling and sizzling read… full of life… of character and vitality.’ The Sunday Times
Star Shot, Mary-Ann Constantine (2015)
Synopsis: Perhaps not an obvious choice for this category and yet a different kind of romance is concealed everywhere in Mary-Ann Constantine’s 2015 novel Star Shot. As their paths cross in a circumscribed world of benches, parks and galleries, a handful of characters reveal their stories of obsession, loss and recovery, creating a fragile network of relationships which will help to resist the inexorable channels of silence eating into the city. A brittle young woman sits on a bench in Gorsedd park,conscious of the powerful building behind her; a tall man carries a box full of a strange organic substance up the entrance steps; a young father explains the formation of stars to his tiny son. As university researchers try to map and understand the destructive silence snaking around them, it becomes clear that the linked lives of these and other marginal characters offer ways of countering its effects. Poignant and humorous with an intense storyline, the sense of uncertainty here connects well to the sense of displacement surrounding the National Museum, forging a curious bond between woman and building. Mary-Ann Constantine teaches for the University of Wales and is Project Leader for the Curious Travellers Project.
‘Mary-Ann Constantine has woven a deft and seductive spider’s web of conjunction and crossings about a place and its lost souls. Star Shot is an inventive psychogeographical fable, speculative, eerie and tender.’ Marina Warner