REVIEW by Steven Lovatt

07/08/2012

The Life of Rebecca Jones

by Angharad Price trans. Lloyd Jones

Angharad Price’s acclaimed novel of 2002, O! Tyn y Gorchudd, is here given to readers of English in the translation of Lloyd Jones as The Life of Rebecca Jones. The narrative voice is imagined but the events and people of the story are real, so that by its manner of telling the book stands in the company of those that blend autobiography and fiction while belonging wholly to neither form. The medium and motive of the novel is memory, ‘The mother of the Muses,’ flawed and inventive, in whose mysterious accounting the most minute detail may be disinterred from the past, magnified and polished until it shines, while whole years, names and once-beloved faces waver, recede and finally disappear as though they had never been. The narrator recollects the “peppery” smell of dry hay from a distant harvest, but she can “no longer remember” any of her childhood Christmases.

Memory is manipulated by Price as a device for attenuating and compressing time, baffling chronology and tempering the narrative that flows briskly or deepens into reflective pools, telling the generations of a family that has lived and worked in the valley of Maesglasau for a millennium. When the family is captured on film, the narrator’s disillusionment with the result suggests that the means of preserving cultural memory are no less fallible and partial than the deteriorating mind of the ageing or self deluding individual. It is a strength of the novel that it makes room for reflections such as these without ever smacking of academic cleverness.

At its most basic and universal level this is a book about belonging and, in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, “The problems that beset continuance” when an ancient social fabric is imperilled by modernity and the encroachment of a technically sophisticated but shallow and alien culture. A singular way of life generates sharp contrasts. Cwm is womb and home; England is masculine, associated with noise and uptight routines. When the narrator’s brother returns to the valley after his education at an English public school, time and space shrink to the pedantry of his precisely bounded walks for the sake of “physical exercise”.

In art it is much more difficult to make felt universal human verities, and to represent unsentimentally the humanity of real people, than to invent fantastic scenarios and characters. What makes The Life of Rebecca Jones compelling as a statement of both art and truth is the voice of its narrator. Lloyd Jones, following Angharad Price’s Welsh, employs language that is direct and unadorned. Rebecca Jones ‘speaks’ in short sentences, often unpunctuated or finely hinged with a single comma between clauses of similar length. Over paragraphs and chapters this imparts to the reader a rhythm of breathing whose calmness and regularity seems of a piece with the activities of the people who are described. But when the chaos of desire enters Rebecca’s life, sentences of four or five words are panted brokenly, threatening the integrity of narrator and narrative alike.

The world of the novel is in more ways than one a world of language. A sentence such as “Sharing the company of such a lovable, agreeable person was a joy to me,” which it is easy to imagine sounding hackneyed or strained in almost any contemporary literary context, feels natural here, and the emotions that it touches are not just described but seem restored to the reader. Conversely, when we are told that another of Rebecca’s brothers became “a computer programmer at Nottingham University,” the ordinary words jar because they are delivered in a voice that we have come to associate with accounts of pre-modern labour and the natural life of the valley.

It is important that Rebecca Jones is allowed to recognise the restrictions as well as the blessings of her sheltered life. This is not, as some critics have implied, a simple and moist-eyed paean to a vanishing society. Early in the novel Rebecca remarks that “Tradition had a hold on me from the moment I was born,” and the ambiguity embedded in this phrase is a persistent presence. Rebecca’s constant evocation of her family, and the occasional introduction of other voices (the book is more polyphonous than may first be realised) reminds readers that, for her, a self is inseparable from, and constituted by, its relationships. The position of the novel between fiction and autobiography invites questions about the tragedy and heroism of everyday lives. Rebecca is sometimes stoical in the face of misfortune, but the grammatical and emotional passive is often disrupted by flashes of a militant spirit. She can be critical of religion, patriarchies English and Welsh, and the confining respectability that contributes to the ruin of her one chance of erotic fulfilment. Rebecca’s is a voice, like anyone’s, that is both unique and universal.

Buy this book at gwales.com



       


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