Kith and Kin by Stevie Davies

Rape, suicide and infidelity - welcome to Wales
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People are always leaving Wales, shedding their past in the process, though many go back, a fact reflected by the popularity of the homecoming in Welsh writing. (A theatre director once complained to me that her slush pile was full of maundering prodigals visiting mam and dad.) Fortunately, Stevie Davies's latest novel, Kith & Kin, belongs with the best of the genre.

It's a tribute to Davies that her engrossing tale of rape, suicide, drug-taking, infidelity and communal life in 1960s Swansea never smacks of melodrama. We come to believe in her story because we believe in her characters.

Returning to work with amputees in Swansea after 12 years away, feisty Mara Evans is reunited with her close-knit relatives the Evanses, Menclauses and Thomases. Stevie Davies is drawn to characters in conflict, facing dilemmas, forced to make choices, haunted by their past. She is superb on the claustrophobia of family life, the gossip, the tensions. She brilliantly captures character through dialogue, so none of her large cast of mothers, fathers, aunties and uncles, old-fashioned lefties and long-haired dropouts is sketchily drawn. And Mara, the dynamic feminist, is equally complex.

Overtaken by memories, Kith & Kin never loses its readers, even as it moves back to children playing on a beach in the 1950s or returns to the present day and the war in Iraq. Episodes swim hallucinogenically into focus, and, within a few pages, characters are greying and middle-aged then young and vibrant again. The past haunts the present, and Davies's characters move through the world like their own ghosts. It is perhaps the most affecting element of this unshowy, excellent novel.