Friday, 9 December 2011

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Review by Crystal Jeans

Mari Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, is set in a quiet Welsh village just after the First World War. Davey has recently returned from the trenches. One morning his wife, Non, finds him crouched under the kitchen table holding an imaginary rifle in a waking dream. The same the next morning, and the next. Davey is not the husband Non married. He’s quiet, he doesn’t laugh anymore. He’s admitted that he was unfaithful while abroad and cannot be her husband as he once was. They sleep in the same bed, but separate. She wants her husband back.

Non also has to cope with a demanding, gossipy neighbour, an adopted son, Ossian, who does not speak and screams when touched, a dragon bitch mother-in-law from hell, and a heart condition that causes her to feel death is constantly at her shoulder. Did I mention she has a special gift which enables her to see people’s physical illnesses? That she’s a herb-gathering witch-healer and an ex-abortionist? She’s got a lot going on, has Non.

The story sees Non trying to find a way to help her husband recover his mind. She travels to London, visits pawn shops, clairvoyants, hospitals full of sick men. In doing so she inadvertently finds out some life changing truths about herself. These little revelations and the lead up to them are quite compelling, so much so that this book might have Mystery added on to the end of Family Drama/Historical Fiction/Romance/Supernatural.

Basically Non is on a journey. Half way through the story, she begins to express a tentative feminism. She grows a pair of (metaphorical) balls – they’re not very big ones, but they’ll do. This is the time of the suffragettes. Women are only allowed to vote once they reach the age of thirty. Any balls are good balls.

My main criticism of this novel is that sometimes the characters are just slightly two-dimensional. The baddies are pretty bad – the mother-in-law, Catherine, who is spectacularly foul in every scene, pervy Uncle Billy who likes to get young girls pregnant, and Teddy the traveller who’s just plain creepy. The nice characters – Davey, Non, nephew Gwydion, son Wil, neighbour Lizzie – are a little too wholesome for my tastes.

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers is about doing the best you can for the ones you love. It’s about dealing with the disturbing things in life which are as yet unnamed – autism, shell-shock, statuary rape. Despite this, it’s a gentle read. Death, war and mental breakdown seen through chaste eyes. This is not my thing, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. My Nan will love it.

Crystal Jeans is an online and print contributor to New Welsh Review.

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Monday, 5 December 2011

Review of Lucy Caldwell's The Meeting Point, Dylan Thomas prizewinner

The winner of this year University of Wales Dylan Thomas prize, announced last month, is an old-fashioned book. This was my first impression of Lucy Caldwell’s The Meeting Point, which the novelty of it being my first novel on an e-reader (Sony) did nothing to dispel. The story of losing my e-book virginity is simple: it was an impulse buy for a journey; I also had to carry a heavy art book, and the device was borrowed. I am not a convert: I couldn’t get a handle on the novel’s length (it felt short) and I seemed to be turning pages too often. Also my initial excitement at the prospect of making electronic notes evaporated when I only managed to make squiggles on the page as though it were an expensive version of Etch-a-Sketch, rather than creating detailed observations ready to cut-and-paste into a review. So rather than replacing my main love, Sony will only be allowed on business trips, if he behaves himself.

There’s converts aplenty, though, in The Meeting Point, since its protagonist, Ruth, is the wife of a northern Irish evangelical Anglican vicar set on a mission to smuggle bibles and other weapons of mass conversion from Bahrain into Saudi Arabia. Troubled teenage Noor has been sent by her English mother to the island to stay with her born-again orthodox Muslim father, Dr al-Husayn. Noor, however, falls headlong under the influence of the golden Irish Christian couple who have moved for a few months into her ‘compound’, and despite the ways in which she, as a vulnerable minor, is exploited by Ruth, has become a born-again young woman by close of play. The (too numerous) bible quotations kick in by page 11 (on Sony Reader’s old lady large print setting), and we quickly realise that this is a novel about faith, especially when the setting shifts from rural Ulster to the Persian Gulf. But Caldwell confounds any readers’ assumptions that they may be in for a dose of Middle Eastern fundamentalism or critique of cultural mores. The Arab characters are either westernised (Ruth’s love interest Farid), rediscovering their faith (Dr al-Husayn) or ‘happy… and unembarrassed’ to be a second wife (Maryam).

Either Caldwell is a Christian herself (I noted Spitalfields Alpha course among the acknowledgements), or she has managed the feat of entering the mindset. Ruth opens the story with the revelation that her wedding was brought forward because she was pregnant. We start to wonder why she is complaining so much about the loss of a harvest wedding to an early spring one until we realise both parents feel a ‘quiet guilt… at not having waited until their wedding night… as they had ought to.’ Ruth’s reference to Bible readings, prayers and sermons to guide her behaviour displays an almost exotic mentality for liberal, secular readers. Having set her goals so high, she is very nearly hung for a sheep as she gets reckless once her prized virtue starts to slip.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and evidence associating the sacred island paradise or ‘Holy Dilmun’ with Bahrain as the source of the Garden of Eden story, greatly enriches The Meeting Point, widening its references beyond the notion of Ruth’s Christian fall from grace. The title itself is a reference to the confluence of rivers (including the Tigris and Euphrates) said to water the Garden. Deft use of imagery also unites the novel. Broad cultural symbolism surrounding stones is beautifully handled, as is the pencil-size roll of paper, variously used for love messages between strangers and to slip the gospel over the border. Once we get used to Ruth’s measured tones and bed in to Noor’s urgent voice and story, this is a fantastically structured page-turner with depths.

This is a version of Gwen Davies’ Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 3 December 2011.

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