New Welsh Review
Three Tales by Cynan Jones: Book Launch and Review
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I had no idea what to expect from Cynan Jones’ Three Tales, his new book for young readers. Since devouring Jones’ Cove in a single nail-biting sitting last year, I have been avidly reading his back-catalogue of short, stark novellas. None of them are easy reads. His writing reflects the Welsh landscape – the flinty spine that connects his books – it is jagged, raw and makes uncomfortable crossing for the under-prepared. Peering into all sorts of dark and unsavoury corners, they cover such topics as juvenile violence, adultery and badger-baiting. His prose, stripped as it is down to the barest bones, has moved me to various states of shock, thoughtfulness, anxiety, sadness and anger. One thing I have never thought after setting down a Cynan Jones book is: this guy should be writing for kids. So, it was with excitement and a little trepidation that I sat down to read this one. An hour later, I was charmed. Three Tales is pitch-perfect; whilst suitable for young readers, it doesn’t lack the Cynan Jones sucker-punch.
I attended the book’s launch at Aberystwyth Waterstones (where, in full disclosure, I work). A diverse crowd gathered, from Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake to Jones’ brand new baby daughter (although he assured his audience that Three Tales was in the pipeline pre-impending fatherhood and not some misty-eyed response to becoming a dad). While the adults cheerily supped wine and the children painted a resplendent flowery mural in homage to one of the stories, Jones joked that his launches were usually more sombre affairs, in keeping with his dark fiction.
But here was a happy crowd, gathered in the warm shop as rain poured outside. The evening kicked off with a reading of ‘The Unbendy Giant’. A giant looks after a village of ‘you-and-me size’ people, helping them farm and build houses in the countryside. Eventually, the giant thinks he knows better than the little folk and starts organising their lives for them – for their own good, of course. The giant’s demands and appetite grow and soon the people are raiding other villages for food. As they lose their skills, the giant makes up new pastimes for them, like Moving Shiny Little Pebbles from One Place to Another for No Particular Purpose. As they rush about doing completely useless things, over the years the people forget their situation used to be different, better (queue wry smiles all round from the adults).
Like all great children’s fiction, Three Tales operates on multiple levels. But can a children’s book comment on faceless corporate greed and our problematic disconnect from the land and vital skills? Yes, it can. However, young kiddies might have to gain a few years before they can decipher the message. This, Jones tells us, is what he writes for, to present layered ideas that require readers to do their own heavy-lifting. Nor do the other two tales shy away from serious themes. ‘The Piano Player’s Hands’, the oldest story in the collection, was published in 2003 and selected for Richard and Judy’s Winning Stories. Here, the right and left hands of a concert pianist almost derail his career during a jealous spat about their respective roles. The tale’s close reminds us that whatever attributes an individual has, each has its value, including the less glamorous ones (‘’I have to pick his nose!’’ argued the Left). ‘The Scarecrow and the Doll’, Jones tells us during the Q&A, is a response to the creative process – the ugliness that can arise during the creation of a beautiful thing.
The book itself is one such beautiful thing, a compact, tactile object published by Gwasg Gomer, with a highly touchable, grainy front cover. Jones tells us that he wished to create something akin to the Ladybird Classics he loved as a child. Inside, the stories are brought to life with lively, sketchy illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason. The black-and white, linocut-style images complement the fairy-tale simplicity of Jones’ prose.
Three Tales has a mythic, timeless quality. Children and adults who take time to sit down with these enchanting stories will be rewarded; those, that is, who have time to savour the tales and aren’t too busy rushing around appeasing their own Unbendy Giants.
Eleanor Howe is completing an MA this summer in Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.