Jamie Woods defends his controversial choice of Gold by Dan Rhodes as the Greatest Welsh Novel.
Dan Rhodes’ third novel, Gold (2007), may well prove to be one of the more contentious nominees in our search for The Greatest Welsh Novel. Not only is Dan Rhodes English, but the novel has already won the Aye Write! / Clare Maclean Prize for Scottish Fiction in 2008 – it qualified due to the author’s time living in Edinburgh. It should also be noted that Rhodes studied at the University of Glamorgan. However, I do not believe that the nationality of the author really should be of consideration here. Gold is a Welsh novel, and is an exceptional book, and that’s what this type of accolade should be based upon.
Just as the sun was a thumb’s width from the horizon, she felt a shiver as she saw what she had come to see. She had stumbled upon this sight on her first visit to the village, and had found herself returning to it year after year. Whenever the sky was clear at the end of the day, one of the rocks in the cove below looked, for just a few minutes, as if it had turned to gold.
Set in Pembrokeshire, Gold manages to evince the beauty of this stretch of ragged coastline through the eyes of Miyuki Woodward, a woman from a small town in the Valleys who visits the same coastal village each winter. Leaving her girlfriend at home, she spends two weeks walking and reading, and most of her evenings in the lounge bar of The Anchor, along with tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes, Mr Puw, and Septic Barry & the Children from Previous Relationships. Miyuki’s mother is Welsh, her father – who she has never met – is Japanese. Miyuki, we are told, described herself as ‘about as Japanese as laverbread’ until she discovered there was a Japanese food-stuff that was ‘more or less identical’ to the Welsh delicacy, at which point she attempted to learn all the important facts and figures about Japan and Japanese culture. This knowledge not only stands her in good stead for making small talk, but also for participation in the weekly pub quiz in The Anchor.
Throughout his œuvre, Rhodes has proved himself a master of concise character building. He has written two collections of micro-fiction, Anthropology (2000) and Marry Me (2013), in which real lucidity and emotion are presented in stories as short as 101 words; and in his début novel, 2003’s Timoleon Vieta Come Home, where entire lives are played out in small chapters as a travelling dog passes through their respective worlds. Miyuki’s status as an outsider, albeit a warmly welcomed one, allows Rhodes the opportunity to examine the village residents with both a bar-room familiarity and a real sense of curiosity and intrigue. In Gold we read of the holiday romances of Septic Barry, the lead singer of a band who have never as much as played a gig; the strange disappearance of tall Mr Hughes; the quizmaster with his Mark E. Smith inflections; and the story of the stuffed pike, under whose gaze Miyuki sits each night.
There is something wonderfully poetic about Gold. Rhodes uses repetition, and variations on ideas throughout, and this rhetorical technique allows the reader to recognise the commonplace events from the bursts of adventure and excitement, and to engage with the cyclical nature of the novel. Each chapter is one day of her fortnight’s holiday; and each night Miyuki throws her contact lenses onto the hot stove where they ‘hissed and danced the mambo’, ‘danced a two-step’, or ‘a lacklustre fandango’.
The underlying theme of the novel – permanence – is also reflected in Rhodes’ clever use of repetition. Miyuki, in the central moment, spray paints a rock in gold paint, so it would be gold at all times, not just in the few minutes referred to in the quotation at the start of this essay. But it does not last, it washes off. This is matched by the flecks of gold paint she sneezes out, the beautiful golden haired barmaid who doesn’t stick around, the flashes of gold she desperately looks for to tell her she’s with the right person, and the golden light that shines on her partner, and the village on her last day there. The people remain though, the idiosyncratic locals, the regular visitors, normality. Despite the comedy – and it really is a funny book – there is a strong footing in reality, in human nature, and in belonging, all weaved within its pages. This degree of rationality, to engage with and to find joy in the small moments of daily life, is so far removed from the aspiration of so many novels, that it resounds for long after reading.
Gold is the perfect antidote to the jaded cynicism and misanthropy of The Old Devils. It is a wonderful comical portrayal of Welsh life, and it is never patronizing, the humour comes from entirely the right place. It’s beautiful and lovely and a little bit heart-breaking, and worthy of its place in the Welsh literary canon.