New Welsh Review
The Burning Bracken
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With its promises of exploding tensions and desperate violence, the blurb that accompanies Morgan Davies’ The Burning Bracken suggests a nail-biting environmental thriller. What unfolds in the novel’s pages is something quieter and more meditative: a chronicle of one woman’s relationship to the rural landscape, through good times and bad.
After Sarah finds out her partner is having an affair, she leaves her English home and drives west with no particular destination in mind, but with the memory of an idyllic childhood caravan holiday in mid Wales suggesting that this way lies the chance to return to simpler times. She ends up at Hafod Farm and rents a dilapidated cottage on the land from the owners, Sioned and Evan. Once inhabited by Evan’s nain, the cottage and its crumbling state have become emblematic of the looming decline of an ageing profession and way of life. Sarah’s moving in and beginning to help out on the farm briefly suggests renewal. But, against the backdrop of a foot-and-mouth outbreak and a rash of violent incidents, her relationships to the land and its inhabitants grow increasingly complicated.
Her new relationship with Rob, an English conservationist, falls apart after he picks a vicious argument with Evan. Sarah seeks solace in a group called the New Wilderness League (NWL), who encourage members to meditate and develop a spiritual connection with the environment, but the League’s cult-like nature soon becomes evident. It extracts money and unpaid labour from its members and freezes out those who ask inconvenient questions with frightening speed.
Davies paints the often-fractious network of social relationships that stretch across the local community with a deft touch. Even before the outbreak, conflict and contention are never far from the surface, reflecting the precarity of rural life. The farmers, their worries and disagreements, feel very real. So does Sarah, convincingly portrayed as a character whose whole life has been spent seeking an elusive sense of home. The novel’s greatest strength, though, is its depiction of the mid Wales landscape. Rich with sensual detail but never sentimental, Davies’ prose gives The Burning Bracken a vivid and concrete sense of place.
That absence of sentimentality is important, and is what elevates this novelabove the cliché of a disaffected urbanite finding herself in ‘nature’. Davies carefully avoids common assumptions about rural landscapes being ‘natural’, making visible the ways in which they are shaped by human activity. Both farmers and conservationists seek to make the land conform to their own ideals, and we are reminded that sheep – in the popular imagination, as essential a part of the Welsh countryside as hills or grass – were in fact imported from abroad. The notion of ‘nature’ as an idealised sanctuary, both separate from humans and available for their use, is summarily demolished. The book ends on a decisively anti-anthropocentric note, with Sarah coming to the conclusion that ‘[t]he land stands apart from us, beyond our experience, unknowable and unreachable, closed forever to the human mind.’
The place where The Burning Bracken is weakest, for me, is in its portrayal of the side characters outside the farming community. While Evan and Sioned are no angels, their struggles are sympathetic and fully realised on the page. In contrast, those who criticise farming are either privileged lecturing academics (Rob) or untrustworthy criminal cultists (the NWL). Likewise, Sarah’s old friend Gill, who visits Hafod Farm and fails to appreciate its charms, is a caricature of a squeamish city-dweller. None of these figures get much internalisation or development; all, pointedly, are English. In this way, the novel – perhaps inadvertently – reproduces what George Monbiot has called the ‘moral forcefield’ surrounding agriculture in popular discourse, and the perception that to criticise farming is in some way un-Welsh. A little more space and attention for these minor characters might have avoided this and strengthened the novel’s ultimate theme: that, however valid the experiences and concerns you bring to the land, it doesn’t care about them.
The ending also stretches credulity a touch (and, if you don’t wish to know what happens, look away now!) Sarah chooses to leave the farm and sleep rough in the hills, and she does this without ever considering the implications for her personal safety. Given the very high rates of sexual violence against homeless women, and the existence of a character in the novel who is threatening or inappropriate toward her on more than one occasion, the fact she never thinks about it was tough on my suspension of disbelief.
Ultimately, though, these are minor quibbles. At its core, The Burning Bracken is a powerful and thought-provoking novel of struggle and acceptance, and a worthy addition to the current wave of eco-fiction. Read it to immerse yourself in a sharp and clear-eyed vision of rural mid Wales.
JL George’s novel The Word, published in the autumn on our New Welsh Rarebyte imprint, is the overall winner for the 2022 international Rubery Book Award. A mentored review, part of a project with students of GO [Graduate Opportunities] Wales, is published here.