REVIEW by Ashley Owen

NWR Issue r12


by Cynan Jones

Contemplating Cove, Cynan Jones’ latest novella published this year, one wonders if the author ever feels the pressure of fulfilling the promise of his own previous work. Jones’ first novella The Long Dry won the Betty Trask award, and his 2014 short novel, The Dig, is his most lauded yet, having been shortlisted for the Sunday Times/EFG Short Story Award, longlisted for the Warwick Prize, and having won both the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and, in 2015, the Wales Book of the Year fiction prize. The Independent has called him ‘one of the most talented writers in Britain’. It is an intense expectation to meet. And yet, Cove shows readers that Jones is only just beginning – that here, he is distilling even further the sort of taut, powerful storytelling for which he is acclaimed. This novella makes a promise of a new sort: that we as readers may be familiar with Jones’ capabilities, but we have not yet plumbed their potential.

Cove is full of things that get left behind: a son, a wife, an unborn child, a doll washed up on the beach. Even the opening scene of a woman on a beach, of rescue workers looking for a missing child, is left behind in favour of moving backward in time – shifting from the calm after the storm to the calm before it. The book’s narrator is a man alone at sea, mourning his father with the ritual of a fishing trip. Before the storm, he is awash in the memories that familiar actions recall, simultaneously contemplating the ended relationship with his father and the one not yet begun with his own child. After the storm, he is blank, contextless – fighting to survive with no clear remembrance of what he is surviving for.

The narrative probes at grief, at the feeling and performance of it, without ever approaching maudlin; indeed, it is the syntactical simplicity of Jones’ writing, and the sparse, straightforward, at times even brutal language of the narrator’s internal dialogue that both drive the tension of the novella and cause one to feel most keenly the loss at its core. Jones navigates through confusion, despair, fear and resignation with the unvarnished pragmatism of Hemingway, masterfully demonstrating how to strip a story back to its barest essentials.

In evocation of setting and careful crafting of image, Jones brings to bear the visual artist’s eye for detail and the poet’s ear for language. From the bright, barnacle-encrusted physicality of a post-storm beach, to a secret bay (a bit too alive with fish, tourists and the distant sound of a jet ski), to the claustrophobic confines of a sea kayak, Jones’ descriptions are tangible and visceral. When describing the storms that frame the narrative, Jones creates a genuine sense of menace:

A metallic sheen comes to the water, like cutlery. Like metal much touched. The white clouds glow, go a sort of leaden at the edge.

It is only form here separating prose from poem.

The two storms, and the repeated image of a child’s waterlogged doll, pull the story’s arc taut until it closes in on itself, a perfect narrative circle. There is a haunting inevitability present in the story’s final moments that lingers past the turning of the last page, like the ripple effect of a wave echoing slowly outward.

And thus Cynan Jones fulfils the promise of his previous offerings by delivering what might arguably be called his finest work yet. And we will not have to wait long to see what form his talent might take next: in addition to this novella’s release in two days time (3 November) by Granta, 13 November sees Jones’ first efforts for the screen. He was commissioned for a two-part episode for the currently airing third series of the BAFTA Award-winning crime drama, Y Gwyll/Hinterland (Welsh version by Caryl Lewis). A tight run-time of 120 minutes, and a show acclaimed for its use of evocative setting seem a logical fit for a storyteller who can streamline a powerful narrative like Cove into 95 pages. What will be truly fascinating to see is what Jones’ understated but undeniable sense of drama brings to the simmering and occasionally explosive emotional noir.

Ashley Owen recently submitted her PhD in Creative Writing to Aberystwyth University. She works at Waterstones’ Aberystwyth.

Cynan Jones’ Cove was first excerpted in New Welsh Review’s current edition, 1 September. Here he describes the storm that inspired the novella. A longer extract (around half the novella’s total length) was published by the New Yorker in October as ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. Our New Welsh Readers Poll, 2017, is now open for nominations for the best ever English-language books in the category of novella (and memoir), via @newwelshreview #NewWelshAwards.

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previous review: Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression
next review: Crossings: A Journey Through Borders


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