REVIEW by Dafydd Harvey

NWR Issue r35

Broken Ghost

by Niall Griffiths

My first encounter with Niall Griffiths – picking up Sheepshagger a few years ago after one too many recommendations – was a profound reading experience. There is an unprecedented authenticity of Welshness in Griffiths’ work and it is as impressive as ever in his most recent novel, Broken Ghost. His characters are people I know, people that I see every day. People who kiss each other sloppily in the midnight tension of a small-town pub and wake up early the next day for a Saturday morning shift. People who do uppers on weeknights parked up in two-door cars. Dole-collecting dissenters with Red Dragon tattoos on fat necks. Grafters, ravers, perverts, thieves. Destructive, radical, funny people. Dangerous outsiders and frightening conformists living in ‘a cloud of enforced sameness’. This authenticity emerges from complex characters, beautifully crafted prose, and consistent and accurate use of dialect. It shines in small details; in the Alabama 3 song spilling out onto the street and in well-placed vulgarities on a suffocating Arriva train. It burns brilliantly in poetic meditations on magical Cambrian landscapes:

Infinity in the joints of a millipede’s legs. In the pulverised pearls on the wings of a moth. All the pallid empires of men… In the husky mutes of the owls are tiny bones of paper, skulls breakable by a breath.

Broken Ghost is an investigation into the psychology of the Welsh condition. It asks: from where do our impulses to violence come? Against all odds, it seems Griffiths may genuinely have something of an answer – we are disconnected.

The story runs as follows: after an underwhelming rave and some dud ecstasy, three locals have the shared experience of an otherworldly glow over Llyn Syfydrin. At first, recovering addict Adam, madhead Cowley, and the sex-fiend Emma, are altered by their vision and find an improved feeling of peace. However, gradually, the characters are distracted by reality, forced to confront its insane demands, and slip back into familiar patterns of destruction. Isn’t that just how it goes? There is a suspense in this inevitability, this natural forgetting, played skillfully by Griffiths. Insight – no matter how profound, must always be fiercely guarded, and it is painfully resonant as it ebbs under the torrents of the day-to-day.

The people of Broken Ghost are disconnected from the society they live in. There is something of Zarathustra in the glowing woman of the lake, a knowledge that breeds an ambivalence to herd mentality. An opposition to this mentality that usually finds a twisted expression in the drug-abusing social rejects of Wales:

All that is not ‘I’ is made same in the statement and in a world never to be tamed or understood or managed in any degree but that which can, at the same time, be tucked into a pocket or concealed in a sock.

This disconnection at a societal level is two-fold. In addition to the intra-subject animosity between dissenters and proper tax-paying citizens who signed the social contract in Sharpy, there is the predicament of being helpless to the whims of a callous government over the bridge. Tory England is the focus of the characters’ ire throughout – ‘their tax-avoiding Bullingdon Club restaurant-smashing fucking stinking hypocrisy’ – yet this throbbing disdain can only translate to fits of rage at suited RP accents and finds no political channel. There are no politics to be pursued, no real connections that can be made’ only a crushing sense of defeat. The only form of political protest open to Adam is his own life: ‘I will never Do The Right Thing, as they fucking see it.’ There is a real violence, a revolutionary spirit, but no fight to attend, just complete bitter defeat. So defeated are we that, when further cuts close down Rhoserchan rehabilitation centre (that mostly treats tragedies of austerity policies), or deny a young mother her benefits, there is nothing to be done but implode – ‘This little smug squirt across the desk from me has the power to make me and my son go hungry.’ When Emma’s blogposts regarding the vision on the lake go viral and hordes of Welsh people form a commune at the site, they are threatened with sanction by the powers-that-be. Genuine, complete disconnection is not only difficult but dangerous to the establishment and therefore is deemed to be illegal. Alienation is the business of late capitalism, indeed, it is essential to its very maintenance.

At the rehab centre, those in recovery are reminded, in William Glasser’s words, that disconnection in the modern Citalopram nation is ‘the individual suffering from a socially universal human condition rather than a mental illness.’ The glow is concerned with ‘an absence of God’ and is reminiscent of Zarathustra once more when it seems to reestablish a long-lost historical sense. The thrownness, that results from the inwardness of contemporary atheistic ideas of the self, destroys the potential for aesthetic experiences, for a connection with nature:

It’s beautiful around here, I know that – the landscape, this is what they call ‘beautiful’, and I know it is, in my head like, but in my heart, in the bit where it counts, there’s nothing. I could be anywhere; there could be anything outside the windows of the bus and I’d feel the same way. It’s just the physical bits of the world. It’s just, what, fucking green – that’s all it is.

The ability to be present in the world, or the ‘absence of absence’ as Emma calls it, runs concurrent with an acceptance of death, a prevailing theme in Broken Ghost:

I’d see sheeps with their arse ends caked in cack and boiling maggots…. I stopped seeing all of this stuff as repellent and scary and just began to accept it as the way things are and, even, realise that I was a part of it… that I’d return to it when I die.

The eternal return is felt in glimpsed moments of clarity, in the wildness of the remnants of our prehistoric animality, the part of us ‘that has wings and claws’. The midwife told Emma, when her son was born, that he ‘has been here before’. The contrast between the calm oneness of the enlightened characters and their flippant egoism is traumatic; such alternating between the two states creates a sense of intelligent disorientation. As the book progresses, the chapters become longer. The highly individuated first-person perspectives give way to an omniscient narrator and free indirect discourse, a movement that mirrors the transition from the self-obsession of depression to a variegated collective unconscious.

As with anything written in 2019 – especially a novel so concerned with social commentary – I was not surprised to find a lot of Brexit-related content. Although Griffiths’ treatment is generally subtle, the characters are occasionally a mouthpiece for anti-Brexit sentiments that break an otherwise exceptional naturalism of voice. Llewelyn Nesa writes in her blogspot: ‘Article 50? Mere dust.’ Broken Ghost can tend to get swallowed in mere dust. The insertion of tweets and blogposts (social media being another outlet for disconnection that ‘pick, pick, picks’) is heavy-handed and the ‘messages’ – with their numerous hashtags – provide awkward intervals. At its ambitious best, Griffiths’ vision is fundamental and revitalizing; however, like its characters, it can get distracted by the mundane, and at such moments can be boring. Overall, however, this novel is a real achievement, a tour-de-force of outcast psychology and a fearless account of desperation, spirituality and addiction, a hopeful proponent of a new quality of seeing:

There is a new quality of seeing – the future hangs up here as well as past and everything converses with everything else and even the dung flies, especially the dung flies, minute beads of shite on their finest hair, belong.

Dafydd Harvey was winter 2019’s reviewer-in-residence, in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.


previous review: The Night Circus and Other Stories
next review: Crushed


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