As part of a new series, Wales Arts Review profiles the careers of a range of new, established and emerging writers and artists from Wales. In the first instalment, we take a look at the work of award-winning author and playwright, Rachel Trezise.
There are voices that rise above the crowd and just force you to listen to them, the kind of voice that gets into your head and refuses to leave. Rachel Trezise has spent the best part of the last twenty years being one of the loudest, and most recognisable, of those voices in Wales. Her debut novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl was published by Parthian Books in 2002 and went on to win the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize. Since then, Trezise has remained at the forefront of contemporary Welsh writing, with a varied and lively back catalogue of work, including the acclaimed literary rockumentary, Dial M for Merthyr, and her award-winning play about the fraught relationship between an alcoholic mother and her teenage daughter, Tonypandemonium.
At the heart of Trezise’s writing is a desire to offer an honest account about the South Wales she grew up in and the complexities of that post-industrial landscape. Having been raised in the Rhondda, Trezise has always felt most at home writing about life as it is in the area she feels so strongly connected to. That urge to write perhaps finding its origins in a desire to expose inequality and the scars left by past events, through her writing. Trezise has spoken of being able to identify with the themes of “ubiquitous oppression” found in the works of writers such as Toni Morrison, in particular “the misery, the violence, the sexual abuse, and the way the ghost’s appearance reawakened the character’s recollections of it”; themes which all prevail within her own writing. It is the hidden stories, the narrative of the voiceless, that Trezise is most concerned with. Her 2019 play Cotton Fingers tackled the topic of abortion, through the eyes of a young Belfast woman forced to travel to Cardiff in a bid to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Like much of Trezise’s writing, it manages to strike that most difficult of balances, between unflinching honesty and a wry sense of humour.
That isn’t to say that her work has never ventured beyond the boundaries of South Wales. Her 2013 short story collection, Cosmic Latte, took readers on a whistle-stop tour which includes London, America, Prague and Germany. But there is so much more to the collection that it’s dazzling geographical list. Reviewing the collection, John Lavin described how “each story in Cosmic Latte is a multi-layered, deeply imagined piece of fiction, very often with the breadth and scope of a novel”. The real poignancy of the collection lies in its depiction of human stories, in the tales of the migrants, the grief-stricken, the heartbroken and the lonely who often find themselves stranded, a long way from where they expected to be in life.
More recently, Trezise has returned closer to home to delve into the circumstances which led to Wales voting in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. Her novel, Easy Meat, charts the confusion and indecision of Caleb Jenkins as he weighs up the atmosphere of political uncertainty against his own personal problems including family problems and day-to-day financial struggles. Reflecting on the decision to set the novel across the course of a single day, Trezise has cited Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a starting point for the concept of writing a novel which took place across such a short time frame: “Richard Davies at Parthian suggested that I read Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and have a go at writing a story which took place across just the one day. So I tried it a few times and the story kept falling out of those parameters, but the more it did that, the more it became a challenge and the more I was determined to get it right. At first I drafted the narrative by the day, then hour by hour; I thought I’ll write a scene for every hour of the day. As the drafts went on, that kind of fell away, because I’d achieved that and it was more about the characters and what I needed them to do”. The novel went on to become the first Brexit novel to emerge in Wales in the wake of the referendum.
Perhaps inevitably, there has already been much talk of the impact of Trezise’s work on contemporary writing. The republication of her first short story collection, Fresh Apples, as a Parthian Modern Classic in 2021 seemed to cement her place as one of the most influential writers currently at work in Wales. Reflecting on the short story in Wales through the prism of Caradoc Evans, Jon Gower situated her work as being a crucial feature in the revival of the form in the twenty-first century. Deserving acclaim for a writer whose work continues to pack a punch strong enough to knock the wind out of her readers’ sails, while ensuring that her characters are given the opportunity to shout their story as loudly as they possibly can.
In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl – 2002
Fresh Apples – 2005
Dial M for Merthyr – 2007
Sixteen Shades of Crazy – 2010
Cosmic Latte – 2013
Tonypandemonium – 2013
Cotton Fingers – 2019
Easy Meat – 2021