Gemma Pearson steps into the past with her review of Jane Fraser’s Advent, the story of a young woman’s return to rural Wales in the early twentieth century.
‘Gower was not a place for a woman with a broken heart and a useless womb. A woman who couldn’t be bred.’
Just east of Llanrhidian, a rural farming village on the picturesque marshlands of the North Gower coast, stands a ghostly reminder of the unjust futility of good intentions. According to local legend, when shipwrecked sailors were offered refuge in the neighbouring village of Llanelen, they unwittingly brought the plague to the remote community. The population was decimated. Later, in winter 1904, twenty-one-year-old Ellen – ‘named […] after this ill-fated village’ – returns to the family farm near Llanrhidian in a final effort to prevent the imminent death of her alcoholic, gambling-addicted father. But, in a village haunted by the memory of tragedy and hardened by tradition, Ellen’s task is no mean feat. Forfeiting her bright new life in Hoboken, New Jersey for the oppressive obligations demanded of a farmer’s daughter in Gower, Ellen is forced to reconsider matters of filial duty, painful past-loves, and the pervasive limitations of her sex.
Told from an omniscient third-person perspective, Jane Fraser’s first novel, Advent, warmly invites us into the Thomas family home and creates an immersive, vivid image of life in the early twentieth century. Fraser’s primary focus lies within the domestic sphere since, while the men labour on the farm or in the mines, Ellen and her mother keep the home running smoothly and ensure that grandmother Elizabeth is well cared for. Do not think, however, that this novel is narrow in its range because, although it is set primarily in the farmhouse and its surrounding pastures, Advent confidently explores wider themes of identity, expectation, and anticipation with depth and veracity.
These tensions manifest because, once back in Gower, Ellen finds herself making one difficult decision after the next. Returning to the place in which her relationship with the man she had intended to marry broke down, however, is perhaps the most poignant consequence of Ellen’s pilgrimage home. We learn that Ellen had been unable to conceive and, in a society that sees her as a failure, ‘a dud, a barren bitch,’ Ellen is forced to come to terms with the socio-economic limitations of her infertility. As a result, our young heroine sees sexism and injustice in all facets of life. Why should she not be considered the head of the family despite being the eldest sibling? Why must she churn butter and set the dinner table while her brothers earn money at work? And why is it ‘the man in the moon and not the woman in the moon?’ Swaying between aspirations to be more than a woman ‘imprisoned by her womb,’ and a longing for ‘a baby on her breast,’ Ellen feels rootless and lost, as ‘light and directionless as a feather […] carried on the breeze.’
The simple beauty of this feather motif is also reflected in Fraser’s evocative and layered descriptions of Welsh weather:
‘Gales from the south west lash the coast and bring salt-laden rain along the horizontal to Gower. Trees bend in submission, lambs huddle together and take shelter under blackthorn, and – in the exposed fields at the top of the village – earth-brown rivers run off the caked top-soil which is too dry to absorb the downpours.’
Fraser’s writing, perhaps at its very best when describing the beauty of the Welsh landscape, brims with feeling, familiarity, and liveliness. For those with the Gower landscape at their doorstep, Advent will feel like home. For those further afield, it will stir up a Welsh-wanderlust you never knew you had. But, like the titular waiting-period suggests, we will have to see out the lockdown first. Just as Fraser’s female characters quietly yearn for something more than their given lot, we are all suspended in a virus-induced advent, perpetually waiting for relief, communally hoping for a brighter future.
Advent by Jane Fraser is available now from Honno Welsh Women’s Press.
Gemma Pearson is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.