Books | Wilfred Price… by Wendy Jones

B.J. Epstein looks at the “sweet, pleasant, and enjoyable” The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, the debut novel from Wendy Jones.

Are our lives our own? Do we live for others? Do we belong to them and should we let them decide what we do? How can we live our lives to the fullest without hurting other people, especially those who might wish us to make other choices?

Wendy Jones
The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals
Wendy Jones
264 pp., London: Corsair, 2012.

While such a discussion might sound rather heavy, in fact Wendy Jones’ debut novel, The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, is sweet, pleasant, and enjoyable to read, even as it tackles some of life’s biggest questions. Quite literally, this novel is about life and death, about all the consequences – intended and not – that spread through our lives like waves after each decision we make.

Wilfred Price is a funeral director (or a ‘purveyor of superior funerals’, as he prefers to put it), and he lives with his father, a grave-digger. Due to their constant interactions with death, father and son – especially the latter – appear to be particularly attuned to the idea of living, even if they are not quite sure what it means to live fully as oneself. Wilfred seems to feel it is time to find a wife, but he ends up accidentally proposing to the wrong woman, and wonders if he will have to be penalised for this for the rest of his life. He wants to make sense of love, marriage, and relationships, and he is trying to learn how to connect with others.

This desire to make connections is depicted beautifully in Wendy Jones’ novel. For example:

She reached out her hand across the bed, across the gap between them that had been maintained each and every night for the fourteen nights of the marriage, and touched his arm, leaving her hand there for a few seconds; it was a touch devoid of sexuality or passion, desire or wanting. It was the touch of one broke person reaching out, in recognition, to another.

At the same time as he attempting to make connections and forge relationships, Wilfred is a man who is in search of language. He wants to learn new words, so he can describe his ‘thoughts and happenings’ along with his feelings, but he also is attempting to find a way to speak that which is usually left unspoken. As such, he buys himself a dictionary and studies it, in the belief that with language will come understanding. But can a dictionary tell us anything about who we are and what we want? To a certain extent, Wendy Jones leaves this question open, although there is a hint of an answer towards the end of the novel.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals is in many ways a misnomer, since the story is told from multiple points of view, and not just Wilfred’s, but it is true that it is Wilfred that a reader feels most connected to.

The novel could be described as charming, by which I mean the setting (in rural Pembrokeshire, Wales, in the 1920s) and the plot draw a reader in and show something different from many novels that are published today. The story is definitely on a small scale, but in a positive way – a reader gets to know the characters and to care about them, and can link their destinies to larger issues and universal emotions.

So, are our lives our own? As Wilfred Price well knows, we all end up in the same place, so we have to make of life what we can. He certainly does.