REVIEW by Omar Sabbagh

NWR Issue r8


by Alys Conran

...(Write it!) like disaster.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

In a different life, writing out of a scraggy, brittle, but yet, at times limpid and atmospheric Wales – Pigeon might have been authored by Faulkner. Alys Conran’s novel has less scope, perhaps, than a Faulkner novel, but the inner spaces which collude with and cry against the outer spaces make this tale of homelessness, forlornness and its ultimate homecoming, just as imaginatively capacious.

This tale is constructed of a closely woven tapestry of interlocking lives in the post-industrial terrain of north Wales: two youths, boy and girl, at the center. Like Faulkner, there is the sense of the inescapable osmosis, hydra-headedness of tragedy amid and among and about these lives. A wailing middle-ness, at times inarticulate, at others, articulated; a sense that the vicious cycle of damage, from family structures, to friendships, to nations and their idioms (Welsh and English here), has no true ‘transcendence’. Indeed, until the last words of the novel, the (‘feral’) fantasies and the incumbent storytelling of the two main characters, youths Iola and her friend, the eponymous ‘Pigeon’, are always suspended and topsy-turvy, awkward growths – much like the voice and attitude of most young persons, touched inexorably by a past which, like all of us, they can’t control. Hence the novel opens in medias res.

The narrative is woven from two points of view, often close upon each other and alternating; that of the young Iola, in the first person, and that of a quasi-omniscient persona. Indeed, tying with the centre of the plot (whose details I won’t reveal here) the palimpsest created by this perspectival interlacing, overlapping, is an image as it were of ‘conscience’, of guilt, earned, or unearned and merely inherited as part of the human burden. The style mixes, but with real control and coherence, between a youth-like syntax, the voice of a curious girl, feeling her way-into relationships and events that escape full comprehension or closure, and a limpidity of imagery to the poised prose that is never overwrought; rather, pitch-perfect.

All the characters in this tale are damaged, caught in the barbed wire of their own insuperable middles; barring one, perhaps, towards the end, when we grope in proto-Proust-like fashion to the cusp of retrieving lost-time; when ‘Pigeon’ moves forthrightly, after various scented prolepses and hints, to becoming (meant in both senses) the title of the very work of which his centre-stage role is the very rub and nub. We move, then, from Welsh (doled-out to us, of course, in pidgin) spoken by the young maverick, daredevil Pigeon, to the English he masters after youthful prison-time – this switch indicative of a certain damaged-alienation, a very unsentimental education; to a newer English at the finale, at the coup de canon; the English of the novel itself, the English of Conran herself; the English that limns and drafts and in the end takes us to the verge of healing these Welsh identities, these brittle selves embroiled in hardships of different and polymorphous sorts: from physical to emotional, from mental to material.

There is a sense in this tale’s development and unraveling of both: the serial nature of the youthful, venturesome imagination, as well as the rhythmic sense of contrapuntal or synchronic effects, belonging to a more masterly sensibility. Indeed, after much of the damage, towards the last quarter of the novel, the notion of storytelling (‘words’) becomes overtly thematized. Words build order for and crystallize experience, especially the kind that grieves and rasps and hurts. If you like, the novel is split, iconically, by two images of the main hero, Pigeon’s life. At one point, indicating a world of differential violence that cannot be escaped, Pigeon is reading a ‘fairytale’ to his now regressed mother, she dawdling in mental illness, after much abuse to her and hers. This is like an inversion of the natural order, of romance. And yet, when at the last Pigeon grows to the point of beginning work, at the end of this tale, it is by building ‘walls’; by building. Those walls he craves to build while in (the now outgrown walls of) prison, and those walls he comes to build in fact are the walls of the novel itself. Pigeon.

Arguably, the whole gamut of the tragedies in this story derives from Pigeon’s missing father figure – we can speculate thus. ‘Elfyn’, a very minor character at the end, Pigeon’s teacher in masonry, is arguably the only undamaged soul. Not only does his role offer a literal fatherly guidance, redemption; but, a very minor character, he is symbolic of how the tragedy in all our lives is a part of living with the sheer weight of the uncontrolled, unwalled: contingency.

Until, that is, we give it a sense of ending.

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet and critic. Two extant collections are My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon, 2010/12). His fourth collection, To The Middle of Love, is forthcoming in early 2017 with Cinnamon. His latest book is the Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile (also Cinnamon, 2016). Currently he is Assistant Professor of English at The American University in Dubai (AUD).

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