REVIEW by Ffion Lindsay

NWR Issue 102

Dream On

by Dai Smith

One of my favourite Welsh words is hiraeth, a word that has no English equivalent. It describes a peculiar pain of the heart, a wistful longing for the past and tentative yearning for the future. Dai Smith’s latest novel is full of hiraeth.

Dream On is as dense as the coal that serves as a unifying theme in the novel. It is a sprawling epic of only 335 pages: the Ilyad of the Valleys. It tells the stories of a host of vivid characters, but it is the story of south Wales that Smith is really telling. It is a meditation on themes such as fatherhood, memory and responsibility, told through the eyes of, amongst others, a dying, unfulfilled politician, a has-been ex-rugby player, and the returning hero, a famous photographer with unresolved issues.

The novel begins in the past with a collection of bittersweet memories of working-class Welsh life. The prose here is slow and suspenseful, with the larger-than-life characters and strange goings-on adding a touch of magical realism to the text. One young narrator, Gareth, describes the family history and eventual disappearance of a young girl called Theresa Riley, the illegitimate daughter of a Welsh woman and a black GI. The young characters are caught in a transitional moment in time, the first generation to grow up post war:

[…] our absorption of passing life as we grew was constantly affected, in tone and perspective, by the otherness of the connected lives of all those senior and antecedent to us. By their treatment of us, sweet and threatening, private and public, turn and turnabout. By their stories. By their moods. By their scars. By their dreams […] Among the ruins of such lives we all danced.


The central portion of the novel is given over to the twilight years of Digger Davies, one-time Welsh rugby player and victim of a farcical death. The contrasts between Digger the rugby player and his latter incarnation as Richard the husband are played out in the recollections of those who knew him. His noble (if brief) stab at sporting glory is juxtaposed with his ignoble death; the fight between his wife and the rugby club for the rights to scatter his ashes more black comedy than memoir.

The main portion of Dream On belongs to Billy, whose photographs as a young man brought the plight of the miners and their families to the masses. Having absconded from his birthplace and his politically domineering father, a plea for help from a young woman who may be his daughter lures him back across the Atlantic to confront the past. Billy stands in as our sarcastic alcoholic detective, a Chandleresque protagonist braving the corrupt mires of Welsh politics.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Dream On is that it takes in so many separate stories and narrative styles and yet still reads like a cohesive whole. However, it is certainly not a light read, rather a broad, ambitious work, drawing heavily on Welsh history and the legacy of great Welsh figures like Aneurin Bevan and DA Thomas. This is unsurprising really, considering that Smith is Professor in the Cultural History of Wales at Swansea University and has written extensively on such topics as Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (1993), Wales, A Question for History (1998) and, more recently, In the Frame: Memory in Society, an alternative history of south Wales.

The section entitled ‘No Photographs of Crazy Horse’ I found particularly tricky. Here Smith forgoes all semblance of a narrative drive and descends into long, unapologetic ramblings about history, life and politics, as told through Billy’s father:

His old man had never liked cameras. Or so he said. He certainly never owned one, or borrowed one, or used one. He bought one for Billy when the boy was sixteen, out of an act of misplaced generosity, as he wrote on the card.


The father professes not to like his son’s photographs, and yet Smith presents his diatribes with the same snapshot intensity. The writing here can be elegant – more poetry than prose – but the same technique does make other sections of Dream On somewhat difficult to read.

Overall, the sections I enjoyed the most were those concerning Billy in the modern day. Smith delivers the painful realities of Billy’s return with the acerbic wit and grime of the noir thriller. Dream On is a series of detailed set pieces, some more effective than others, strung along a seam of time. Part novel, part history lecture, I came away feeling like I had never really known my home until now. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Welsh history, but beware: this novel will demand your full attention. After two readings I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer.

Buy this book at gwales.com



       


previous review: America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt
next review: Poetry and Privacy



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