New Welsh Review
Plu by Caryl Lewis
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Gwen Davies reviews a new edition of the debut short story collection Plu by Caryl Lewis (Y Lolfa). Recorded and edited by John Tudor; researched, scripted, and read by Gwen Davies. Senior Producer: New Welsh Review. New Welsh Review’s Multimedia Programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
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Plu (Feathers) by Caryl Lewis, published by Y Lolfa, reviewed and with quotation translations by Gwen Davies
This collection of twelve short stories is frosted with feathery images such as snowflakes (snow feathers in Welsh), cottongrass and fishing flies, as well as bird-themed items: eggs; pheasants; geese; an owl; snow buntings; wood pigeons; a nightingale, and a dusting of moths. Fancy a feast for the eye? Readers with a visual mind are never disappointed by Caryl Lewis’ lyrical prose, packed with alliteration, the Welsh strict metre borrowed from poets (cynghanedd), and a technique which elaborates meaning through cumulative visual symbols.
Under review here is a new edition published a decade on from its original appearance in 2008. Those ten years have seen Lewis’ career burgeoning, as she collected a second overall Wales Book of the Year award in 2016 with her novel, Y Bwthyn (the cottage) as well as winning the fiction category of the same prize the following year for her second short-story collection, Y Gwreiddyn (the root), as well as developing a powerful screen voice, most recently last year in her own rural noir serial, Craith/Hidden. Returning to Plu, a curt nod is unfortunately required in the direction of Y Lolfa’s binding department, as my copy came adrift at page 87, threatening a flap of pages across the winter streets.
Lewis is known as a writer of the traditional and disappearing rural Wales rather than one of diversity, and, while there is one gay character in this collection (suffering unrequited boyhood love in ‘Adar yr Eira’ (snow buntings), the book’s new edition is testament to how much broader the author’s range has ranged since its first appearance. These stories are anchored in nature’s cycle, which does favour male and female coupling, does prize fresh beauty and fertility and is slow to evolve roles and modes of being. Their protagonists are mostly straight, often elderly, slightly old-fashioned, and the values their histories unfold tend to be conservative: underlining heritage, inheritance, acceptance and fate. However, Lewis’ scripts and novels of the past three to four years, while remaining rooted in the universalities of country life, encompass with more confidence both the urban middle class and the urbanised rural poor, as well as touching – with greater authenticity – social themes such as feminism and social conditioning. Her embracing of television, meanwhile, has seen her branch into a new genre – crime – although of course her novels were, from the beginning, extremely dark and often violent.
Nevertheless, while the structural and thematic ambitions of this collection are on a smaller scale to that of Lewis’ more mature works, the writing here can, particularly at the level of resonance, sentence and image, match the power of what she is achieving today. In two stories, unnamed boys go on a mission carrying objects in their pockets. In the first, ‘Yr Wy’ (the egg), the talisman is an eleventh-hour attempt to ward off change (and halt the flooding of Cwm Celyn). But in ‘Y Potsiwr’ (the poacher), a sweetcorn necklace made to choke, is a catalyst for change, while the greedy pheasant it kills – a symbol of his father’s adultery – is a prize for the boy’s maternal camp within an ongoing domestic battle. This latter story, with its motifs of patience, is one of the most striking in Plu, as the boy waits in darkness for the birds, still in the trees like ‘black bruises’ (sawl clais du), to awake and plop to the ground where death awaits.
Nature is at its reddest and toothiest in ‘Y Sguthan’, a story of blood, guts, literal butchery and what the rural cops would call food fraud. An injured cow, a slight perversion of nature in that it was a twin, recalls the cow that opens Lewis’ 2004 calling card, Martha, Jac a Sianco (available in English as Martha, Jack and Shanco), which feeds on its own udder. The key to why the protagonist, Ieuan, has lost his wife or girlfriend, lies beneath this apparent straightforward account of on-farm, stunless slaughter. Clues are in the bloody new sheets Ieuan wraps the meat joints in, the double meaning of the title which refers to both wood pigeon and ‘slut’, and the bird’s habit of building more than one nest ‘to trick anyone that was a threat to her’ (i dwyllo unrhyw un a fyddai’n fygythiad iddi), including, apparently, the hyper-physical Ieuan himself, despite his boyhood knowledge of more delicate matters such as ‘which nest the [bird] would choose to eventually lay her egg’ (pa nyth y byddai’r sguthan yn ei dewis i ddodwy yn y diwedd).
While a stoicism in these stories can seem paralysing for some of its protagonists, it is in the repetition of trust-based routines in nature and animal husbandry that other characters find not only a centring meditation but the kind of self-expression which precedes healing change, and, at times, leads into pagan magic with the power to transform. The chanting opening of ‘Y Pysgotwr’ (the fisherman), with its impersonal timeless imperative voice creates that meditative state:
It is in the darkest hours that one must catch sewin, once the evening ceases its shimmer and tricks its river insects into amber. (Yn ystod yr oriau tywyllaf y dylid dal sewin, ar ôl i’r hwyrddydd hofran ei olaf uwchben y dŵr gan ddal y gwybed yn un côr yn ei olau ambr.)
In ‘Wennol Bwlch a Chilhollt’ (the slit- and swallow- notch), a boy’s knowing how to tell the sheeptags of his home herd from his neighbour’s, leads him through defiance to independence. Meanwhile, in the story’s rhythm, the task of son and father marking the herd beats on, stamping the collection with this author’s hallmark: stability. Elsewhere, those scenes in ‘Elyrch’ (swans) – where Marged observes and is preoccupied by her husband Tegwyn’s obsession with a flock of geese that have taken refuge in their garden – are mesmerising. Especially this one (a reverse of the deadly vigil of ‘Y Potsiwr’) , where Tegwyn stands guard against foxes:
…he would stand close to them, and they would tolerate it, as though in deepest sleep they had become tame. Once… he stood right in their midst, quite still as they slept on. (byddai e’n sefyll yn agos atynt a hwythau yn ei ddioddef, fel petai trymder cwsg yn eu dofi. Unwaith… fe lwyddodd i sefyll yn eu mysg. Aeth i’w canol wrth iddyn nhw gysgu a sefyll yn llonydd.)
As Marged’s irritation builds, the denoument could swing either way, but Tegwyn shakes off the flock’s spell like a goose’s feint and the couple are reconciled.
My favourite of the collection is an early example of when Lewis refuses to be defined just by lyricism and conventional mores but reveals her downright weird side, in which her later crime writing revels. In ‘Ffôl y Ganwyll’ (moths), a widow paints a rum-laced treacle onto the veranda she used to share with her husband. Once dry, this ‘sweet wall’ (wal felys) attracts silky wainscots, light emeralds and the orange swift, and ultimately calls up the dead man’s own (rum-laced?) spirit. The couple’s love may have been a touch boring, the kind ‘others found uninteresting, but an alcoholic treacle wall of moths? That’s original. Long may you fly, Caryl Lewis.
Gwen Davies is translator of Caryl Lewis’ novels Martha, Jack a Sianco (Martha, Jack and Shanco, Parthian) and Y Gemydd (The Jeweller, Honno).