Newfoundland By Rebbecca Ray

Why have the Welsh all joined the Chinese opera?

It's puzzling, often tedious - and enthralling.

The talk in the town is all of the impending death of Eirian, a fierce old lady determined to leave her estate to her simple son, Dai, almost as an act of revenge. Interested parties begin to circle. Gwen Morgan, the schoolmarm married to the mayor, takes it upon herself to look after Eirian despite a barrage of home truths directed at her efforts. Cheerful Ruth Lewis strives to care for her deaf daughter, Dia, and her husband, Lennie, whose fierce bonhomie is deeply ominous. Teenage Rhys dreams of escape; his friend Tom finds himself in a compromising position with the town's most unimpeachable figure.

Charlotte Weyland comes to Ynys Morlan to escape the memory of a mother she detested. She strikes up a friendship with Ruth and eventually makes her a remarkable offer. With the huge wealth she has inherited from her mother, she suggests that together they renovate the town. No one need fear poverty again. The results are disastrous. The town loses both its heart and what little life remains to it.

This vision of Wales is a Cambrophobe's dream. Under Milk Wood it's not. Ynys Morlan represents a world of confinement and disillusion. So the question is, how can a book so conventionally charmless be so deeply seductive? The secret lies in Ray's prose. She has created an idiom all of her own. Occasionally one feels that emotional indicators are merely sketched in: her characters' mental states are as often as not shown by stylised movements of the hand and head. You could walk away with the impression that the people of Ynys Morlan are all highly trained members of the Chinese opera or a gaggle of meercats. You're tempted to think of the best moments as bright coins rising from the mulch, but the truth is that the author never lapses: the brilliant and the banal flow from the same cool, penetrating voice. The integrity of her style is total. When she turns her hand to, say, the grief of Dai, or the angst of little Dia, it's heart-stabbing.

Ray's dialogue is less successful. Her characters endlessly ruminate on loss, and not always very engagingly. Ray finds it hard to differentiate between their voices: they tend to deliver their tales of woe and wonder in a discordant thirtysomething style, all platitude and blandness. Yet this can be effective. The stolid mayor, Eymer Morgan, would be intolerably tedious were it not for his hackneyed but human attempts to comfort and understand.

Newfoundland faces down literary fashion with a granite stare; it is grotesquely long, quite without humour, unnecessarily portentous (every moment is a loaded one) and it's about Wales. And Rebbecca Ray is 25 years old. She should be writing about boys and alcopops, you can hear trendy critics tutting. Well, she did that in A Certain Age, and if this novel shows a writer protesting her maturity with a little too much zeal, then that is itself a token of true rebellion.

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