Book review: Dark thoughts in sunny places

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The Independent Culture
FEW BRITISH novels of the Fifties repay rereading more than A Toy Epic (1958), which earned Emyr Humphreys critical plaudits in a year notable for distinguished fiction. It traces the development of three boys in "one of the four corners of Wales" (in fact, Humphreys's native Clwyd) from their earliest years to the threshold of manhood, by interweaving their confessional voices.

We attend to the secret histories of a vicar's son, a farmer's son, and a boy from an urban working-class background. While the novel owes its technique to Virginia Woolf's The Waves, the impression it makes is one of extraordinary freshness: a rapt discovery of both selfhood and the significance of other people. It makes the reader aware of the complexities of being Welsh and of being male, in a world in which traditional assumptions are weakening.

Emyr Humphreys, born in 1919, was already the author of sensitive and intelligent novels, starting with The Little Kingdom in 1946. There, the community studied is a microcosm of Wales itself, and of mid-century provincial life in any developed country. A Toy Epic was a turning-point in his career, and in Wales the novel enjoys classic status. Nevertheless, one can feel that he still has not been accorded the wide recognition he deserves.

Humphreys' career is reflected in his latest novel, The Gift of a Daughter. Born in Prestatyn, an English-speaker, he began to apply himself to Welsh language and culture as an ardent youth, in 1936. Indeed, he wrote A Toy Epic first of all in Welsh (Y Tri Llais). In the war he was a conscientious objector, but later carried out relief work abroad, including in the Italy which plays such a significant part in this new book. He has been a teacher, a university lecturer and a television producer of films in both English and Welsh. His knowledge of institutions, of the moral struggles they go through and which they impose on the individuals who belong to them, is impressive in its width of understanding - not least in The Gift of a Daughter itself.

The reputation Humphreys has enjoyed since A Toy Epic has largely been as an interpreter of Welsh experience and Welsh identity. Perhaps his three strongest novels are A Man's Estate (1955), Outside the House of Baal (1965) and Jones (1984). All of them pay a humanist's tribute to the Welsh puritan/evangelical inheritance, with its passionate sense of justice and its belief in an individual's supreme importance. His critical work The Taliesin Tradition (1983) is essential reading for anyone concerned with the relationship between national, or social, identity and the imagination - especially in Welsh terms. Then Unconditional Surrender, in 1996, marked an extension of his range. Set in the charged months between May and August 1945, the novel dramatises those problems of displacement, guilt and loss that have remained integral to postwar society.

These inform The Gift of a Daughter, too. Its protagonists, Aled Morgan and his wife Marion, now well into middle age, belong to a generation which sought identity and security in the re-definition of nationality and tradition. They taught their beloved daughter and only child, Rhiannon, to speak Welsh as her first language. Despite a purity of intent, there was always a deep ambivalence in their ambitions, which set so much store on being firmly established in both professional and domestic life.

Aled lectures in archaeology, yet is aware that the preservation of his job and his research inevitably entails compromise. Marion, the more brilliant of the two, has long given up scholarly pursuits. Their Anglesey home is beautiful, and lovable. But doesn't it also represent a retreat from the world, a too-easy oasis?

Aled and Marion's peace of mind is shattered by Rhiannon's death from a miscarriage. She has left home following her parents' disapproval of her choice of partner and faith (both strongly New Age). Yet not the least disturbing aspect of this absorbing novel is our gradual realisation that, in serious respects, the couple are not quite shattered enough. Aled's sabbatical in Italy - where he is able to re-immerse himself in Etruscan studies - shows his and Marion's ability to replace real and painful feelings with counterfeit substitutes.

At times, there seems a certain blurring in the actuality of the novel. Rhiannon's New Age associates are too like Sixties hippies, with whom they should not be confused. Its Italy does not reflect the political turmoil of the Nineties. Yet these lapses pale beside the intensity of its examination of the contemporary conflict between painful authenticity and attractive inauthenticity, in a tense drama that works towards a troubling close. This is a novel worthy of the author of A Toy Epic.

Paul Binding