BLOG Mari Ellis Dunning

NWR Issue 103

Burrard Inlet and The Scrapbook

It was a warm spring evening when I went to see Tyler Keevil and Carly Holmes, two of Parthian’s newest authors, launch their books at Aberystwyth Arts Centre bookshop this month.

Tyler Keevil

Keevil has just been shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award for his second novel, The Drive, reviewed in NWR 102; Burrard Inlet is his first collection of short stories. It is named for the body of water that divides Vancouver’s North Shore from the rest of the Lower Mainland. Raised in Vancouver, Keevil’s accent was surprisingly warm as he told us, ‘I’m only just coming to terms with what the book is actually about.’ The collection, he said, was originally written only as a personal project. He has gradually gained insight into readers’ responses through launches like this one. ‘You’re just building these stories over a period of years, with no intention of them coming together in a collection.’

In contrast to Holmes’ debut with its three female protagonists, Keevil acknowledged that his work is ‘haunted by masculinity’. There are stories about fishing and working with scrap iron, forestry and volunteering – the whole collection revolves around manual labour. The first story he read from was ‘Fishhook,’ whose viewpoint is first person vernacular. Keevil listed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye as inspirations for his collection and this story in particular. ‘Where I grew up, people were fixated with oral storytelling,’ he said, explaining his love of first person narrative.

‘Something I’ve realised, only in retrospect, is important, is a yearning for home,’ Keevil told his avid listeners positioned on stools, chairs and sitting cross-legged on the floor. He named as hiraeth, a mourning for home, the pull he feels towards his Canadian heritage and Burrard Inlet in particular. ‘You might have your stories and your landscape, but until I can see the place, see the man-made things we’ve put there, it won’t work.’

‘Some of the stories have a darker edge,’ Keevil confessed. ‘Sealskin’ is one of them. It is a story about bullying, destruction and decay. Keevil read a passage from this sinister tale, adding that certain of his characters ‘looked less like men and more like demons, or some malevolent imitations of men.’ I was struck by the power of language to transport a person from a small crowd, amidst people and pages, to a deeply dark and disturbing place where two men are capable of skinning a seal only to torment another character.

Carly Holmes’ debut novel The Scrapbook, meanwhile is profoundly feminine. It was written as a submission for her PhD in Creative Writing at Lampeter. Holmes said, ‘I started with an image of a woman keeping a scrapbook about a lover.’ The woman is Iris, whose lover Lawrence went missing years earlier. Fern is tasked with tracking down her father, who is a void within the text. Ironically, his absence may be the strongest presence in the novel. Holmes deliberately denies Lawrence a voice, expressing his story only through the female perspectives of three generations of women.

Asked about the significance of place, Holmes described the islands in her story as a combination of her childhood Jersey and her imagination. ‘I try to write about internal landscapes,’ she told us. Perhaps the edges and borders symbolised by the islands speaks of the characters’ inner turmoil – in The Scrapbook, landscapes become mindscapes. ‘I wore brown not black. Brown was the colour of decay, the colour of death.’

Carly Holmes, photo Glyn Langham

Holmes’ story is interspersed with pages from the scrapbook and the secret spells of Fern’s grandmother, making the experience of reading both visceral and lateral. A story about absence, loss, self-definition and mystery, The Scrapbook is definitely worth a read.
Mari Ellis Dunning, blogger and NWR online contributor, recently completed her degree in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

NWR subscribers who have accessed the magazine’s digital archives, together with subscribers to the NWR app, may read Kat Dawes’ full interview with Tyler Keevil in NWR 102 digital version. The author’s own account of writing Burrard Inlet is also in NWR 99.

Carly Holmes talks in detail about her new novel in NWR's inaugural podcast, published on 25 May.

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