Emma Schofield introduces the second of our categories for the 100 Page Turners of Wales, Wales Arts Review‘s exploration of the riches of fiction from Wales.
Hollywood actor Katharine Hepburn once announced that ‘if you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun’ and our list of ‘Rule Breaker’ books from Wales certainly seem to lend their weight to this statement. For this category we asked our judging panel to nominate the titles which stood out to them in the category of ‘Rule Breakers’ and their suggestions didn’t disappoint. The ten titles which made it on to this list are books which our judges felt offered them a new perspective as a reader, or pushed boundaries to bring us something new. It’s a list which could easily have run and run, but the ten books here are a small taster of what Wales has to offer to this lively category. Once again, the books are varied, both in content and genre. Our earliest entries on this list date back to 1936 and come from Hilda Vaughan’s Harvest Home and Margiad Evans’ Creed; both novels are powerful and have to the potential to stay with the reader long after the last words have been read and the cover closed. Vaughan’s Gothic portrayal of madness, desire and notions of possession presents an engrossing tale which blends family saga with folklore, all set against the landscape of south-west Wales in the eighteenth century. Evans’ Creed, published in the same year, takes a very different approach with an exploration of religion and its place within a fictional industrial town set on the Welsh border. Evans’ last novel has received less attention than her earlier work but, like Vaughan’s novel, immerses readers in the characters’ world with an almost breathless intensity.
More recently published entries on the list are no less ground-breaking in their contribution to literature from Wales. Gwyn Thomas’s The Dark Philosophers plunges readers into a world of murder, incest and delusion, while dark family secrets and hidden stories also form the basis of Stevie Davies’ 1997 novel Impassioned Clay. Proving that rule breakers come in all different forms, Leonora Brito’s collection Dat’s Love adopts the short story form to challenge racial stereotypes and give voice to characters, and a culture, which had not always been adequately represented in writing from Wales, using a gentle humour to bring her characters vividly to life. Wry humour also plays a part in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Vogel and Crystal Jeans’ Light Switches Are My Kryptonite, in which the impact of grief on a father and son is explored with a depiction of love, pain and compulsion that will strike a chord with many readers. At the heart of this category are the characters; each has their own voice and their own struggle to overcome, but together these voices raise up stories of pain, forgotten histories, love, loss and a sheer refusal to be anything other than themselves. The result makes for thrilling reading.
(100 Page Turners artwork created by Lilly Dosanjh)
100 Page-Turners: Rule Breakers
The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas (1972)
Synopsis: Gwyn Thomas was born in Cymmer in the Valley and went on to be renowned as ‘the true voice of the English-speaking valleys’. Sex, murder, and a devastating, humour mark these three novellas that Gwyn Thomas wrote in 1946. In ‘Oscar’, the narrator of death and exploitation fails to fend off the evil that envelops him. In ‘Simeon’, the abuse of sexual and family power ends with violent death, and in ‘The Dark Philosophers’ itself, the grimly humorous philosophers gather in an Italian café to tell the tragic tale of revenge and manslaughter that they engineer.
‘As if Thomas Hardy met Damon Runyon over a loving cup of small beer.’ New York Herald Tribune, 1947
‘A masterpiece, a warm, beautiful, splendid book’. Howard Fast
Stump by Niall Griffiths (2003)
Synopsis: Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool but now lives in Wales. Stump is the story of a newcomer who arrived in a small Welsh seaside town – a one-armed Liverpudlian. Seeking to rebuild his life, if not his body, he is attempting to lead a life here unlike any he’s lived before: a normal one – shopping, gardening, signing on, visiting friends, all the usual diurnal activities.
Over a hundred miles to the north, however, two men in shellsuits are leaving Liverpool, heading south in a rickety old car. They have been sent by their gang-boss to wreak terrible, violent revenge, but have only a rough idea of their quarry: a one-armed man, maybe living somewhere in west Wales, in a small town by the sea.
‘In the top rank of contemporary British authors…He brings tremendous rhythm and energy to his prose.’ Herald
‘Stump is the author’s gentlest and funniest book by far-He has a prose style as compelling and seductive as any writer in the land’ Big Issue
‘The range of Griffiths’s achievement is as exhilarating as the reach of his ambition.’ Guardian
We Don’t know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris (2016)
Synopsis: Set in his hometown of Caerphilly, a sleepy castle town in South Wales, Thomas Morris’ debut collection reveals its treasures in unexpected ways, offering vivid and moving glimpses of the lost, lonely and bemused. By turns poignant, witty, and tender – these entertaining stories detail the lives of people who know where they are, but don’t know what they’re doing
‘The first book of short stories by Thomas Morris, a young writer whose descriptions of the mundane magic of everyday life make one blissed out beyond envy.’ Julie Burchill, Spectator Books of the Year
‘A beautiful, emotionally searching collection of stories about youth, responsibility and growing up.’ Telegraph
‘These ten stories are grounded and utterly glorious …they are distinct but all of a piece, delights to savour.’ Literary Review
Mr Vogel by Lloyd Jones (2004)
Synopsis: The quirky exploits of Mr. Vogel, a strange, solitary man who leaves his car lights on so that people will knock on his door, is documented in this warm-hearted novel about a man’s dreams for love, friendship, and freedom. Mr. Vogel’s life unexpectedly changes when an unorthodox competition wins him a fortune of money, a beautiful house, a quaint little croft, and a pagoda. Odd circumstances then compel him to embark upon a quixotic walking tour of Wales, and he soon finds himself traveling backward in time, visiting his childhood and even observing the development of his country’s history and literature.
‘In the spirit of Sterne (trapped on a wet weekend in Aberystwyth) or Flann O’Brien (enduring the final cure), Lloyd Jones delivers the tour guide Wales has been waiting for: warped history, throwaway erudition, somber farce. Stop what you’re doing and listen to this mongrel monologue.’ Iain Sinclair, author, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings
‘Mr. Vogel is surely one of the most remarkable books ever written on the subject of Wales or rather around the subject, because it is an astonishing mixture of fantasy, philosophy and travel figuratively expressed through the medium of that endlessly figurative country.’ Jan Morris, author, Trieste and The Meaning of Nowhere
Fireball by Tyler Keevil (2010)
Synopsis: Tyler Keevil is originally from Vnacouver but settled in Wales in 2003. Fireball tells the story of four friends and one intensely hot summer that will change their lives forever. When a group of hedonistic teenagers save a woman from drowning they become unlikely local heroes, but their celebrity becomes the focus for first envy, then harassment. Fireball takes us through their last summer together, and one that will come to define their futures.
‘Speaks to the troubled teenage in all of us…Sympathy and insight…and fun.’ The Guardian
‘Fireball pushes beyond the bounds of its genre, capturing the dynamics of friendship, seduction, and loss to impressive effect…. breathlessly readable and confident debut.’ New Welsh Review
Light Switches are my Kryptonite by Crystal Jeans (2017)
Synopsis: Crystal Jean was born and raised in Cardiff. Light Switches Are My Kryptonite is the story of Sylvester, a young man with OCD, who also has uncontrollable fantasies (many involving Kate Bush) he sometimes believes other people can see or hear. Forced back home to live with his dealer dad, Carl, Sylvester’s imagination takes flight, along with his sanity, leading to a roller coaster ride through OCD, paranoia, and psychedelia as Sylvester, Carl and Sylvester’s fragile friend Patty negotiate a life which seems determined to push them to the limits.
‘In Sylvester, Crystal Jeans has created a character as evocative and alluring as her own name. Her book chemical experimentation, shifting loyalties and disillusionment is an amazing piece of literary ventriloquism; convincing, moving, funny, flawlessly sustained, and utterly compelling.’ Niall Griffiths
‘Jeans’ fiercely honest storytelling remains compelling and original…often uncomfortable, often humorous, but always deeply affecting – and ultimately relatable…’ Dr. Ashley Owen, New Welsh Review
‘It made me cry with laughter and cringe/wince in equal measure; it’s stunningly written in deft and ebullient prose, and extremely tender.’ Rachel Darling, The Turnaround Blog
Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito (1995)
Synopsis: Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff and studied law and History at Cardiff University. Dat’s Love is a collection of short stories such as Dorothy, 59, takes up nude modelling; Dooley Wilson’s funeral in Cardiff; the assassination of J.F.K.; what’s going down at the Blue Bayou; the road that was once a canal; Dido Elizabeth Belle, a slave in England. These are just some of the characters and situations in Leonora Brito’s wide-ranging collection of stories. From the surreal to the mundane, from shopping at Tesco to dying in a hospice, these are beautifully observed stories, moving, funny, authentic. Dat’s Love marks the arrival of an exciting new writer whose sharp dialogue, exactness of detail and striking images are hugely appealing.
‘Truly fresh writing… a collection that is sometimes funny and always highly original. Brito’s narrators and characters are freetalkers and freethinkers with strikingly singular perspectives.’ Publishers Weekly
Impassioned Clay by Stevie Davies (1999)
Synopsis: Stevie Davies was born in Wales and is Director of Creative Writing at the University of Wales, Swansea. Impassioned Clay tells the story of Olivia, whose mother dies and when her grave is dug in the garden of the family home, a skeleton of a 17th-century woman is uncovered. The remains are crushed, but one thing remains intact – a scold’s bridle. Only when Olivia unearths the story of the woman does she begin to understand her own passions.
‘For what characterised Stevie Davies’ new novel, Impassioned Clay, is her unbounded empathy for history and the human beings that it uncovers.’ Morning Star
‘eloquent, erudite and, as Olivia uncovers a story that is both alien and a distant mirror of her own life, deeply moving.’ The Sunday Times
This book is so beautifully written, I’ve clung to every sentence . . . the utter brilliance of the story is such that I stumble for words simply thinking about it. I can’t do this book justice. I can’t do this review justice. I’m not even going to try. Just put me out of my misery and buy it.’ The Crack
Harvest Home by Hilda Vaughan (1936)
Synopsis: Hilda Vaughan was born and raised in Builith Wells. Harvest Home is a gripping Gothic tale of possession, madness and murder, first published in 1936, the novel is set in ‘Abercoran’ on the south-west coast of Wales during the reign of George III. One fine
morning Daniel Hafod rides home from England to become Master of ‘Great House’ after the death of his uncle. But his obsessive pride and his dark desire for the pretty dairy-maid Eiluned lead to his downfall, as he and his sailor cousin, Dan, compete for her love. One of Vaughan’s most appealing heroines, Eiluned herself strives to remain steadfast under pressure.
Creed by Margiad Evans (1936)
Synopsis: Margiad Evans was born in Uxbridge but claimed the Welsh Border country as her spiritual home. Creed is set in Chepsford, a fictional industrial Border town characterised by drunkenness and brawls, it takes suffering as its subject matter. Domestic life is unsettled by strong opinions on love and sin, while notions of religion and fate are debated with passionate intensity.
‘I absolutely loved it…. the evocation of a time and place and a community was absolutely riveting and compulsively “un-put-downable”. There is also an ironic but caring gaze on these characters and I just loved the moments when M. Evans “stepped out” and addressed the reader…’ Miriam Marcus
You can read more about our 100 Page Turners series here.