NWR Issue 69

New Pastoral

Wales has been enjoying the success of its urban noir writers - Niall Griffiths, John Williams, Malcolm Pryce et al - for quite some time. Our literary culture in English has certainly become more discerning as a result of the broadening out of the critical reception of Welsh books beyond periodicals such as New Welsh Review to newspapers with high circulation figures across the UK.

Noir has also garnered increasing attention across the board from within as well as beyond Wales: a recent academic article by Katie Gramich, for example, explores the anarchic tendencies of contemporary Welsh urban fiction, while this year's Rhys Davies Short Story Award called for submissions written in this genre.* But such popularity does have its pitfalls, especially when, as in this instance, the books that have attracted such acclaim can be seen as part of a literary wave or movement: the danger is that writers whose work doesn't conform to urban noir can simply get left by the wayside. As Tristan Hughes notes of the Rhys Davies competition, the assumption is that urban fiction is what all up-and-coming writers are writing these days, and if they aren't, they should be.

But by the wayside is precisely where we should be looking if we are wondering what's been happening in the hinterlands of contemporary Welsh fiction: while urban noir has been dominating the headlines, there's been something of a quiet revolution taking place on the periphery of Wales's cities and towns. Publishers' lists have seen the recent publication of several novels that engage with a very different set of political and aesthetic concerns from those of urban noir. Together, these books form an emerging body of work that can be loosely identified as 'new pastoral'.

I say loosely, because there's already an enormous variety to this group of novels, which is especially evident in their locations. From the marshlands of coastal north Ceredigion to the no less muddy yard of a Herefordshire farm, these stories take in great swathes of rural Wales. Some, such as Rebbecca Ray's Newfoundland (Hamish Hamilton), Tristan Hughes's The Tower (Parthian) and Susan Fletcher's Eve Green (Harper Perennial), focus on one small community; Fletcher, for example, shows the destructive power of emotions that run deep in her fictional village, Cae Tresaint (which, according to the author, is located in the area surrounding Lampeter). The remoteness of the village and the way in which the landscape dominates the lives of a small farming community provide a convincing backdrop to an extremely well written literary murder mystery. Fletcher, winner of this year's Whitbread First Novel Award, draws upon her own upbringing in the Midlands to highlight the stark differences between city and country as they are perceived through the eyes of her young protagonist, Evie. Rebbecca Ray's Newfoundland, like Richard Collins's debut, The Land as Viewed from the Sea (Seren), is set in a coastal town, but while Collins's book is preoccupied with personal relationships, Ray's is primarily concerned with the degeneration and potential regeneration of an ailing community. Other titles in this group focus on perambulating protagonists who adopt a rather more mobile perspective on Wales, such as Lloyd Jones's Mr Vogel and Martin Bax's Love on the Borderlands (both published by Seren).

One of the most interesting things about this set of novels is that their diversity of location is matched by a similarly impressive versatility of genre. If psychogeography has previously cropped up in critical discussions of Welsh writing, it has usually been with reference to Peter Finch's Real Cardiff books, and more often than not in the same breath as Iain Sinclair. As Duncan Campbell argues in his contribution to this issue, however, psychogeography is in itself becoming an ever more complex genre, rippling out of its metropolitan home towards the rural margins, and its expression in a Welsh context is both distinctive and ambitious, particularly in the case of Lloyd Jones's Mr Vogel, winner of this year's McKitterick Prize. Urbane sophistication and wit are no less evident in two very different novels, one - The Shop, published this autumn by Seren - by seasoned and celebrated author Emyr Humphreys, and the other, Happy Accidents, by debut novelist Tiffany Murray. While Humphreys' satire on Welsh-language culture is softened by his use of an affable and amusing narrator, Tiffany Murray's borders novel Happy Accidents (Harper Perennial) uses black humour both to defuse and to heighten the growing pains of her half-American, half-English protagonist, Kate Happy. Both Humphreys and Murray have a wonderful ear for voice and dialogue, and both novels, while rooted in rural locations, reach out across the globe. Murray, for example, explores intercultural British/American, provincial/metropolitan relations in an assured piece of work that goes far beyond its humorous surface and kitten-heeled chick-lit cover to raise some serious questions about Anglo-American identity and Empire. But one genre that may seem more immediately in tune with its rural surroundings than either psychogeography or satire is the literary romance; in the case of Susan Fletcher's Eve Green, genre and geography marry perfectly to offer a poetic, lyrical voice that is very much in keeping with the scope and tone of her story. Rebbecca Ray's Newfoundland is more of a romantic saga in its conception, although it harbours some interesting political aspirations.

As far as politics go, these books form a motley group, and any attempt to synthesise them into a cohesive cultural phenomenon would necessarily result in some over-simplification. It would be more fruitful, perhaps, to consider the question of literary influence in order to place them in some kind of contemporary canon of Welsh writing in English. In some instances the influences are clear: while Tristan Hughes writes in this issue of his Canadian-Welsh background and the inspiration that he has drawn from William Faulkner, there are other connections that could usefully be explored, such as the influence of the novels of Emyr Humphreys on The Tower - evident in the facility with which Hughes produces polished, witty prose, for example, and the gentle humour of his take on a rural Welsh community. Similarly, Rebbecca Ray's mythical, remote village, Ynys-morlan, and her attempt to capture a panoramic view of its inhabitants, bears more than a passing similarity to Dylan Thomas. Some of these writers draw quite self-consciously on an 'Anglo-Welsh' tradition: Lloyd Jones's 'insistent use of quotation and reference' is, as Duncan Campbell notes, 'in common with much recent psychogeographic work, […] another method of excavating the past, of letting the forgotten speak'. In other instances, an immersion in or attachment to a particular writer shows how Wales can enter the creative consciousness of a writer from elsewhere. Gerard Woodward, for example, in his novel August which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2002), invokes R. S. Thomas in one of its epigraphs: the novel itself is very much bound up with the relationship between 'here' and 'there', England and Wales, and the symbiotic relationship between them.* Similarly, as Sarah Broughton tells us in her profile of Susan Fletcher in this issue, Fletcher immersed herself in the work of R. S. Thomas and others in order to build up an imaginative landscape with which to work in Eve Green.

So while noir has offered Welsh readers a contemporary antidote to the classic Valleys novel, new pastoral is in the process of turning up fresh soil. It is clear from the diversity of the novels that I've touched upon here that rural locations, settings and storylines have just as much to offer Wales's writers as the dark underworlds of noir, and it is with these recent developments in mind that this issue of New Welsh Review focuses on 'the rural' in Welsh writing and performance. The articles that follow explore very different aspects of what I would call 'new pastoral', but what they can be said to share is perhaps best summed up visually rather than in words. The dark beauty of Paul Seawright's Between VII, featured on the cover of this issue, highlights the constant dialogue between the urban and the rural; the dark, unfamiliar spaces between what we know, or imagine to be, 'the city' and 'the country'. At a time when the post-industrial landscapes of Wales are reverting to the rural, it is a poignant image that reminds us of their inescapable codependence.

* 'Pimps, Punks and Pub Crooners: Anarchy and Anarchism in Contemporary Welsh Fiction', in 'To Hell With Culture': Anarchism in Twentieth-Century British Literature, edited by H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (University of Wales Press)

**published by Chatto & Windus


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