Gemma Pearson reviews Hello Friend We Missed You, the debut novel by Richard Owain Roberts, which provides a witty and imaginative reflection on grief, loss and the importance of moving forward.
According to the brief biography on his website, Richard Owain Roberts was ‘born in a field on Ynys Môn’ and has since settled in Cardiff, but this marks just about all the information you will find on this fresh Welsh talent if you take a Google. Couple this online obscurity with a reputation for unruly and evasive interview responses and the curious air of intrigue that surrounds Roberts and his craft glitters into view. His unique approach to prose writing has already set new precedents (Terence Malick earned him the 2019 PENfro Short Story Prize) as well as carving out a fresh space in the bedrock of modern Welsh literature.
Exploring tender issues such as resentment, loss, and loneliness with a cryptic and sometimes bizarre sense of humour, Roberts carefully reminds us that grief is intrinsically personal, and always comes in more than one shade. With a host of colourful characters and a captivating, minimalist style, Hello Friend We Missed You is a cool, aesthetic debut novel with few frills.
The novel opens as Hill, having already lost his mother to suicide as a child and his wife to a tragic accident, is travelling to his childhood home on the small island of Môn to visit his dying father. Armed with little more than a suitcase of clothes and his cat, Dave, Hill’s visit forces him to navigate the various planes of heartache. From the house’s clocktower, a space he vividly associates with his mother, to the recurring pangs of disappointment at his own stagnant career as a filmmaker and the constant reminders of his strained relationship with his father, the trip is tinged with a sense of paralysing melancholia.
However, an unexpected pair of houseguests promise to pacify Hill’s feelings of despondence. As he staggers into his father’s kitchen, sweating after the long walk down the driveway and bleeding after an altercation with his suitcase strap, Hill meets Trudy, a charming and audacious marijuana-smoking, smoothie-making PhD student who works informally as his father’s carer. Having essentially moved into Hill’s family home, Trudy and her bouncing boxer dog help Hill to negotiate his feelings of hopelessness by encouraging him to step outside of himself and grab those fleeting moments of happiness wherever they might materialise: “If you don’t do the things you love or make you feel good, then that’s self-harm, Trudy says.”
As Niall Griffiths remarks, this novel is “a simple boy-meets-girl” narrative “transmuted into something uniquely astonishing”. Indeed, while the relationship between Hill and Trudy informs much of the novel’s direction, Roberts also does something much more profound. Utilising unusual paragraph breaks, line repetition, short sentences, and an unconventional, choppy page arrangement, Roberts manages to convey the feelings of confusion, isolation and loneliness associated with the tragic loss of a loved one. While some chapters span a few pages and others barely meet a few lines, Roberts never fails to conjure deep, revealing vignettes about the complexities of grief and what it means to be alive in a world of such unrelenting cosmic injustice.
Hello Friend We Missed You also manages to be really quite funny. Truly memorable images – “Hill thinks about Jack Black’s facial expression as he lowers Jack Black headfirst into a volcano” – combined with Roberts’ witty comments on modern-day trivialities render this novel as fiendish as it is funny. Roberts also employs a distinctly modern vernacular filled with off-beat pop culture references such as the humble TripAdvisor restaurant review, Coors Light, Co-op porridge oats, and Instagram sponsorship deals, which, like a sharp comment uttered under someone’s breath, feel icy and satirical. Likewise, the light hint of internet-troll-style mockery – “Are you trying to cancel me? Hill says” – marks the novel as teasing, provocative, and current.
Through Hill’s eyes, the world in Roberts’ novel often seems bleak. Nevertheless, the novel compels us to remember that, even in those dark moments when the weight of loss feels all-consuming, there is always a world outside moving forward. Hello Friend We Missed You expresses a cautious optimism – “Try to exist the best you can, Hill thinks” – and imaginatively captures those flashes of hope when life, if only momentary, feels colourful and bright again. Roberts’ novel probes the very depths of grief and reveals, in his own disarmingly facetious way, the kaleidoscope of opportunity to be found in forgiveness, reconciliation and self-acceptance.
Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts will be released on the 1st of October 2020 and is available for pre-order at Parthian Books.
Gemma Pearson is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.