REVIEW by Kat Dawes

NWR Issue 97

Cheval 5

by Aida Birch, Alan Perry (eds)

Cheval 5 is an anthology of poetry and prose submitted for the 2012 Terry Hetherington Award. A writer and teacher from Neath, Terry Hetherington died in 2007 and his partner, Aida Birch, now runs a trust to promote writing in Wales, particularly that of young writers whom Hetherington particularly encouraged.

Aida Birch explains in her foreword that the French word ‘cheval’ (horse) appears in an autobiographical story by Hetherington about his experiences as a prisoner of war in Indochina. Cheval can also mean a support or frame (often for a full-length mirror), and this is what this anthology does — reflect and support the breadth and range of creative work being produced by writers in Wales under thirty.

The anthology fits a lot in — the pieces are all quite short, which makes it ideal for dipping into when you want to fill a brief space of time with something thought-provoking. Topics range from Siamese twins (who’s guilty when one becomes a killer?) or the suffering of an illegal immigrant, to someone marking another inch of growth on the doorframe (proud to be growing but unsettled by the thought of an imminent sibling), or getting a pound off the barely known Granddad who at first seems so scary.

The first section comprises the 2012 winners — there were fifty-one entrants, with the work of twenty presented here. Most writers have a few pieces included, which is a great way to get a feel for a new voice. The work is organised in alphabetical order of authors’ names, although it would have been more usual to see the winners placed in order. A few more explanatory headings would also have been welcome.

One of the stories that resonated most with me was Joâo Morais’s ‘The Tea Party’ — James and Catrin try to find some time together away from Nana, but in the end James’s rude impatience turns to grief and helplessness when her support is no longer there. Dialect writing is done well here, as are the gradual revelation of character and the moving description of a common life experience.

Carys Shannon’s ‘Threads’ is another short story with the theme of family ties — in this case the narrator’s guilt at being trapped looking after her ageing mother while her own marriage disintegrates. This story’s painful truths are told directly, simply and honestly. Rebecca Parfitt’s clear, moving poem also looks at the ageing process, this time from the point of view of a carer watching a woman who wants to die become slowly (too slowly) more of a ‘husk of a woman’. Emily Blewitt’s first two poems also catch the nuances of family life, the uncertainty of growing up, changing relationships with parents and siblings and the wonder and fear of birth.

M. A. Oliver-Semenov’s four pieces explore Russia and a sense of inertia; the difficulty of changing things. The final poem, ‘Anthropogenic’, is especially haunting. The narrator knows of the dangers inherent in an alloy factory being built, the ‘war I did not march against’, the horror of the annual dolphin massacre, but — ‘I have no plans to do anything about it’. The truth of apathy is laid bare: ‘By my inaction will irreversible change happen’.

Some stories, like ‘The Diary of a Land-locked Boy’ by Wiktor Kostrzewski , are more difficult to pin down. For me there was a sense of incompleteness — quite probably what was intended. Comprising diary extracts, only the pieces that relate to water are included, so we are given no more than glimpses of the diarist’s life — a stormy passage to Greece, sailing on a lake in Poland, honeymooning beside the ocean. Intriguing, if slightly frustrating!

Work is also included from previous entrants, such as Jemma L King, who won the 2011 Terry Hetherington Bursary, and Tyler Keevil, a former Award winner. This is an excellent idea, allowing readers to follow the development of more established writers, and this section’s confident, unique voices are a tribute to the worth of the Award. Two poems by Terry Hetherington and a foreword about his life are also included, making the book a genuine and fitting memorial to the man, rather than something only nominally associated with him.

I won’t say I liked everything in Cheval 5: in an anthology of such broad range, that wouldn’t be realistic. But as a snapshot of the literary talent that is being fostered in Wales, it’s very illuminating. There is a lot of work represented for such a slim volume, and the collection as a whole is well worth exploring.

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previous review: Aria/Anika
next review: The Bridle


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