REVIEW by Pippa MarlandNWR Issue 100
by LM Shakespeare
This is a novel which will divide readers, with some appreciating its heartfelt values and others feeling a lack of sophistication. Like the story’s heroine, the narrative is guileless, with a clear sense of its emotional coordinates – it celebrates the flourishing of love in difficult circumstances, plays on the disappointing gulf between care and ‘Care’, and gently explores different ways of knowing.
LM Shakespeare’s The Messenger
is a new departure for the Welsh-born writer whose previous works include financial and historical thrillers. It is set in a mining village in south Wales and tells the story of widower Dan Pugh and his daughter Bethan, whose brain is damaged in the difficult birth which leads to her mother’s death. The novel is set in the early 1940s, and focuses on the events which follow Bethan’s fifteenth birthday and the outbreak of the Second World War. Dan and his daughter, along with several of the villagers, are united by a passion for racing homing pigeons, and the novel features some fine descriptions of what is involved in the care and handling of the birds. Though Dan’s life in the pit does not form a major theme, there is a strong sense of the joy taken in time spent looking upwards to the airy freedom of the sky, providing a valuable foil to a working life spent underground. The birds are similarly transformative for Bethan, as evidenced by her delight when she turns fifteen and Dan gives her a racing pigeon of her own, which she names Birthday. When she picks up the bird for the first time, ‘Dan’s own breath was quite taken away. Look at her! A sort of effulgence had spread over the child’s face’.
The novel has a cast of vivid and likeable supporting characters: Servini, the Italian icecream maker and intellectual sparring partner of schoolmaster Olave Richards; the kindly Dr Thomas; Emrys, the canny and brave young boy who becomes Bethan’s only childhood friend. Even the less appealing characters, such as Dan’s waspish spinster sister Betty, who tolerates with difficulty the burden of caring for Bethan while Dan works his colliery shifts, are painted with sympathy. The relationship between Dan and Bethan is particularly tender. The brain damage that Bethan suffered at birth has left her with a condition called Minimal Brain Dysfunction. She has a very limited ability to communicate, and is fixated on her father to the extent that she finds it hard to register the presence of other people. But Dan makes every effort to communicate with her and to anticipate her responses, never losing his faith in the possibility that her mind may be far more active than it seems:
What he was concerned with was the same old problem – the fascinating problem – of trying to understand how Bethan’s mind really worked. Because there was something special there. Perhaps that special, or peculiar, consciousness locked in Bethan’s unique mind was the very thing all mankind needed to know. Because there certainly are things we need to know and can’t get at.
This idea of necessary but inaccessible knowledge is a particular preoccupation of Olave Richards. He worries about the conundrum of a God who can leave mankind in ignorance of the nature of death and what lies beyond. This question becomes all the more pertinent when Dan, who has been called up, is reported missing presumed dead, then finally confirmed as having been killed. It has been hard enough for Betty and the other villagers to explain Dan’s absence to Bethan, but she has no means of understanding the concept of death. When she is told that her father is in Heaven she clings to the idea, believing it to be a place which can be accessed like any other. She tries to take a bus there, and when that fails she sends Birthday, the messenger of the title, with a letter which must be delivered to a destination beyond the grave.
This is a novel which will divide readers, with some appreciating its heartfelt values and others feeling a lack of sophistication. Like the story’s heroine, the narrative is guileless, with a clear sense of its emotional coordinates – it celebrates the flourishing of love in difficult circumstances, plays on the disappointing gulf between care and ‘Care’, and gently explores different ways of knowing. It foregrounds the diverse forms of intelligence that can be passed over by more orthodox views, such as the pigeons’ awe-inspiring ability to orient themselves over long distances and previously unknown terrain, and Bethan’s own extraordinary gifts: the way she can recognise Birthday in the sky long before anyone else, and her ability to intuit the good will (or not) of the villagers.
However, the revelation at the end of the novel that the apparently omniscient narrator is in fact one of the characters, casts unhelpful doubt on the veracity of what has gone before. The literary trope of the unreliable narrator has been explored to powerful effect in the contemporary novel, but the intended effect is unclear here. And without wishing to reveal the ending, which provides an answer to some of the novel’s metaphysical questions, the conclusion will seem to some sentimental and cloying. That said, those readers who are prepared to take the unlikely combination of ‘a book about the power of love; and racing pigeons’ at face value, will find it both moving and satisfying.
Buy this book at gwales.com
previous review: The Moss Gatherers
next review: Air Histories