New Welsh Review
An Indigo Summer
Ellie Evelyn Orrell
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An Indigo Summer is a beautifully paced autobiographical account of a single summer in north Wales that starts to bring healing to a grieving mother and daughter. They discover together the solace to be found in a new artistic practice that roots them in ancient traditions and steers them to fresh creative paths. Orrell’s recollections form vignettes that are meticulously stitched together. She celebrates the restorative power of creativity, nature and the seasonal rhythms of both. The book holds itself between the shadows of grief and the lightness of release – so always feels as if it is moving us as readers towards something precious rather than dwelling solely on the loss of bereavement itself. And for this reason, I came away from the reading experience feeling a little lighter myself.
The first chapter opens with a trip home filled with trepidation for the author. She describes a liminal space of being, with her journey mirroring the psychological insecurity she is experiencing.
There is a kind of travel sickness that spreads itself between me and the next few months – a murmuring unease made more palpable by the wobble of the train carriage. It whispers of the uncertainty surrounding how my life will look in the weeks to come.
Returning home after university, and at a time when the loss of her maternal grandfather is still unprocessed, every change in the familiar landscape is a reminder that life is moving on – the stone bus shelter replaced by a plastic one, the fields marred by industrial chicken sheds and the flattened ground where an old farmhouse once stood. Orrell seems disconcerted as much by the trajectory into the unknown as by the loss of the constants of childhood, saying, ‘The changes are unsettling, not only insomuch as they indicate a passing of time, but also in their representation of its speeding up.’ The author seems also to be processing the loss of her own childhood and the insecurity of oncoming adulthood.
But alongside the trepidation for what summer entails there is the promise of connection – of experiencing the balm of creative practice that her mother’s new venture working with indigo might bring to them both – re-discovering belonging and home. The love and respect that Orrell expresses for her mother is wonderful to read. The author celebrates women like her mother who balance family life with artistic practice, and whose work ‘can understand, navigate and represent themes of motherhood and homebuilding in deeply personal yet universal ways through acts of creativity.’
An Indigo Summer becomes a study of the creative process itself: the frustrations of failure, the dedication to experimentation, and the beauty to be found in imperfection. Despite their physical strains, the daily routines of dyeing distract from the absence of the normal summer rituals of gardening with her granddad as the ‘rhythms of dyeing softly interrupt the pain of loss and begin slowly mending what they can.’ Finding these rhythms and mindful rituals are so important for our wellbeing, and Orrell is careful to refer to research that backs up her own experiences. This can sometimes tip the lyrical flow or personal storytelling a little too far into exposition, but the shift is never uncomfortably long.
I found Orrell’s authorial voice a pleasant companion to an evening of relaxation – like a favoured guest you share stories with across a kitchen table. Her forays into the cultural history of indigo and the colour blue are insightful. They provide just enough background to be informative and are quirky enough to be fascinating. I particularly loved her description of the colour blue’s ephemerality that is illustrated in ‘the mirage of Cadair Idris’ blue seat’ that ‘will always remain just beyond reach’. This illusive quality is reflected in language – with examples given in both the Welsh ‘glas’and Japanese ‘ao’ – as the colours these words encompass can include the colour of sea or sky, grass or forests. The author concludes, ‘There is no universal understanding of “blue”, it evades capture in both the natural world and our man-made nets of language.’ This ethereal quality adds a thread of spirituality to this work – a journeying towards healing and a continuing bond with the departed.
An Indigo Summer, Orrell’s first book, is a very personal account that will never be repeated in the same intimate way. But it hints at a promising writing future exploring creativity, cultural heritage and psychogeography in arresting detail and accessible style.
Liza Penn-Thomas, a critic, poet, creative learning facilitator and lover of theatre, books and art, is based in Swansea.