The Eyrie, by Stevie Davies

Nuggets from the mines of history
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The Independent Culture

Two characters in Stevie Davies's latest novel have different approaches to reading. "Dora's view was that not one word should be missed. She considered [her friend] Eirlys a wanton, greedy reader. Do not fast forward, she insisted: you will miss something." Dora's approach is the one to bring to The Eyrie. Davies writes with a reflectiveness that finds the drama in the details of lives, following minutely the small steps that amount to growth or decline, and accumulate to trigger rebellion or resignation.

Davies has also always been interested in history, both of places and people, and how the past affects the present. It is characteristic that her book, which concerns the relationships between occupants of a mansion block on the Welsh coast, opens with a history of the "berthed liner" of this building, The Eyrie.

Before its conversion into flats, The Eyrie was the stately home of a copper magnate. Davies's timeline reveals that the house is built from profiteering exploitation, an irony given that the inhabitant we are most concerned with is "Red Dora", a 92-year-old "Scot and Trot" who took part in the Spanish Civil War, demonstrated at the Paris barricades in 1968, and agitated in the Miners' Strike.

Now, still fit and sharp and unconventional, she is dedicated to the fight against the unnamed "warmonger", "the bomber of Baghdad". Past events are layered in Dora's character, like strata of copper and tin in the land, as she "breaks through the crust of buried memory". But there is a faultline in Dora's nature, which could cause collapse: the unresolved sense of loss, 30 years before, of her daughter Rosa, who rebelled, as she was taught to, but died unreconciled to her mother.

Big themes of parenthood and politics, feminism and consumerism, emerge out of the thoughts and routines of Dora and her 50-year-old friend Eirlys, now plump and cosseting, constantly baking to feed her neighbours but with her own daring past.

A twentysomething newcomer reminds Dora of Rosa. The relationship enables Dora to "reinstate her memory" of her daughter. Eirlys watches the teenage tantrums of her niece. And Dora's next-door-neighbour's senility gives her (lamentably spineless) daughter and boorish, greedy son-in-law - one of the book's most enjoyably awful comic creations - licence to ship her off to a home and indulge themselves at her expense.

Such departures, and newcomers, bring changes that suggest that history does not repeat itself. And the future of history is uncertain: will the next generation even ask the right questions about the past, let alone answer them? Dora's teenage great-granddaughter Angelica, for all her affectionate nature, offers little hope. The subject she has given the most serious thought to is whether to have breast implants. "Our generation's solutions, Dora thought, are all down the pan."

Davies has a tantalising way of writing glancingly about the important developments, leaving the reader eager to know what happened. Meanwhile inconsequentialities, lightly handled in conversational prose and varied voices, accrete like mineral deposits, until they make something substantial and solid. Enjoy at leisure.

Nicolette Jones's 'The Plimsoll Sensation' won the 2006 Mountbatten Maritime Prize