New Welsh Review

The Herring Man

Cyril James Morris

Beau Longley is seduced by the fairytale elements of this novel, with breathtakingly beautiful illustrations, about accepting a family legacy

PUBLISHED ON: 28/06/22

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: coast, fairytale, father-child relationship, identity, illustration, quest, recovery

PUBLISHER: Parthian

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Stories should not die… They ought to be remembered by someone, somewhere, somehow.

And with this quote, the theme and tone of this book is established. The reader is introduced to Gwyn Evans, grandson of Samuel Evans (Sam the Herring Man, as he is known to his neighbors). Sailor, fisherman, expert storyteller. A man who has been there, done that and got the T-shirt, as the saying goes. A legacy filled with fascinating tales like his should be shared with the world. In contrast, his descendent Gwyn is an example of a tragic stock character which is sadly becoming more common these day: the lonely old man. Isolated, decrepit, grief stricken. Hounded by guilt and silenced by a tragic event from his past. He spends his days creating nets with a carved walrus tusk needle, which has its own unique part to play in the story, despite the obvious implications for animal rights groups, but I will skip over that dumpster fire waiting to happen.

Samuel Evans, before he became a fisherman, was a well-travelled chap who’d sailed across every inch of the ‘watery part of the world’, as Mr Melville calls it. On his return, he bestows his knowledge on his family in the form of stories and sketches (made by the author and breathtakingly beautiful). Grandson Gwyn realises, over the course this novel, that he is the only one who can pass on these tales, so he manages to tell a story to the walls of his own home. Now, this was an unsettling reminder of my own childhood, when I spent many hours telling the entire story of the Chronicles of Narnia to the mermaids on my wallpaper. When my parents asked what the hell I was doing, I said this – A story this good needs to be shared, no matter yet. Sharing a story with a wall – or in my case, the paper on the wall – means that it will live on forever in the foundations of a place. And Gwyn seems to have the same idea. He doesn’t talk to people, so he talks to the walls of his cottage, recounting his grandfather’s odyssey to bricks and mortar.

Enter a catalyst in the form of a young boy. He asks Gwyn about his son’s boat and the painted herring on its side, and – like a river bursting its banks – years’ worth of stories unfurl from the depths of Gwyn’s memory. The bond he forms with this child is heartwarming, more like that between a father and a son. Watching it unfold reminded me so much of me and my grandmother. I treasure the hours we spent out in her garden, me helping her manage the plants and her telling me stories of her youth in the fifties and swinging sixties. At her knee, I gained a love for the music of that time and a healthy understanding of how to kick a man’s backside if he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I’m forever grateful, both for her, and for her stories. Sharing stories between generations is vital. Not only does it preserve the wisdom within those stories, but it strengthens bonds between family members, whether they are still with us or not. The tragedy of what happens when this fails to occur is emphasised in the last line of the book: ‘But Father’s story will never be told.’ This simple declarative makes it clear how important stories are, and the tragic fact many never get told. So many legacies lost to time, like ships lost to the depths of the ocean.

This poignant book is one incredible fairy tale, and has all the elements of a fantastical quest in which a boy goes on a journey to solve the riddle of an old man’s life, gaining along the way a wonderful sense of self. The author, Cyril James Morris, knows his stuff. I will keep an eye out for him in future.

 

Beau Longley is a student at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.