REVIEW by Marged TudurNWR Issue r5
by Caryl Lewis Y Bwthyn
(The Cottage) was a Christmas treat, far better than the tub of Heroes and Celebrations I devoured. It is an exquisite Thorntons of a novel to be savoured by word, sentence, paragraph and chapter. Without a doubt, this novel will be popular in reading clubs and the basis for lively discussions.
Fans of Martha, Jac a Sianco
(Welsh Book of the Year 2005) will not be disappointed. Caryl Lewis returns to rural west Wales to a mountain farm brimming with inner tension and conflict between three characters (as in MJS, but this time all men) – Enoch the father, Issac his son, and visitor Owen who shatters the couple’s peaceful, mundane lives. The story has parallel with that in Genesis of Isaac, Jacob and Esau about a favoured child. A complicated relationship develops between the main characters, with Enoch taking more interest in Owen, who is escaping his own family conflict to the semi-derelict cottage near the main farmhouse, than in his own blood. With the arrival of Owen, Issac finds himself becoming the outsider in this trio.
The net curtain is drawn to reveal the effects of bickering neighbours and a spotlight shines on matters which have gone to the dogs (mynd i’r diawl
) in the mountainous hinterland – Welshness and close knit communities. The seasons mark time, slowly at first, through the farmers’ calendar and the relentless tick-tock of the clock (cerdded y cloc
), but the pace quickens as we sense Enoch knows the stranger without us understanding how.
Though depicting a bleak world of meagre and contested inheritance, it is not a burden to read because this is the work of a fine craftswoman. The juxtaposition of narrative and description of nature on the mountain works well, as plot and themes are advanced through imagery and a cumulative lyrical style which approximates prose cynghanedd
. I was often entranced by the author’s vivid descriptions and imagery, illustrated towards the end of the novel when Owen writes up notes of his new country life for a potential novel (writing, here, as with Lewis' previous novel, Y Gemydd
(The Jeweller), is associated with knowing oneself):
Fel afon, fe fynnodd y geiriau ddod o hyd i’w llwybr eu hunain a’r cymeriadau’n dechrau sibrwd i’w glustiau fel clychau’r nant. Byddai’n eistedd yno’n chwerthin weithiau, yn llonni drwyddo, ac weithiau, ar ambell dro drist, byddai’n ysgrifennu trwy ei ddagrau. (The words, like a river, found their own course, the chat of his characters chiming as water over pebbles. His mood as he wrote would shift too, from glad to sad to tearful.)
Rarely does one see such an insight, understanding and true perception of nature, the countryside, the weather and seasonal rural Wales. An example is the author’s detailed observations of Enoch chipping wood to create proper walking sticks including the advantages and disadvantages of different wood, whether Holly, Ash, Hazel or Blackthorn. Lewis’ knowledge of sheep dog trials, her imagined relationship between hare and fox and the symbolism of the cottage herb garden are all impressively handled. This novel confirms what was apparent in Martha, Jac a Sianco
: that if you want an exact, true and unsentimental picture of the farming community in rural Wales today then turn to the master Caryl Lewis.
Such was my identification with these characters and their setting I was reminded of a quote by Emily Dickinson: ‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that
is poetry.’ Y Bwthyn
will undoubtedly be nominated for the Welsh Book of the Year 2016 since it was, of all Welsh-language books, already Christmas’ bestseller. Perhaps like the English translation by Gwen Davies, Martha, Jack and Shanco
, it will secure its place in the Guardian
’s Top Rural Reads
and Ten must-read Books of the world.
Every Saturday night, at exactly eight o’clock, my friends and I order a taxi to the Cŵps pub in Aberystwyth. We phone Hamza Polat or as he is known locally, Carlos. I’ve met numerous taxi drivers during my time as a student but I have never met one like him. For the brief five-minute journey along the prom we discuss literature from all over the world and every journey, without fail, we talk about Caryl Lewis. Although Carlos is originally from Söke in Turkey, his favourite book of all time is Martha, Jack and Shanco
(published by Parthian in 2007). The next time I order a taxi, I look forward to discussing Y Bwthyn
Translations are by Marged Tudur and Gwen Davies
is a post-graduate student in the department of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University.
Buy this book at gwales.com
previous review: What a Way to Go
next review: A Boat Called Annalise