The Eyrie, by Stevie Davies

Anarchy and egomania in Swansea
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The Independent Culture

Over the suburbs of Swansea stands The Eyrie, an old plutocrat's mansion converted into elegant flats for the discerning, the declining, and, above all, the quiet. Red Dora, however, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, veteran, indeed, of any cause she can lay her fingers on, is not quiet. Every eyrie needs its eagle, and Dora is The Eyrie's. Forbidding, uncompromising, she is both the community's Cassandra and its Cerberus. Her neighbour Eirlys was formed from softer clay: a Welsh nationalist (though you wouldn't know it from her radiant mumsiness), she potters and pootles and pities - indefatigably benevolent.

Then a girl from a real commune enters the community: Hannah is fleeing an imploded marriage and searching for an absconded father. Meeting her, Dora discovers herself to be rather closer to the world of spirits than a lifetime's allegiance to dialectical materialism had allowed her to perceive. Though she knows full well that Hannah cannot be her daughter, the resemblance is unsettling. The two embark on an intense and profound friendship, and seal a pact.

This is a tale in which the long skein of secrets unravels at its own pace. Dora has a triumphant history as a heroine of anti-fascism, but her daughter, going one step further, became an anarchist, dying after a tragically amateurish attempt to assassinate General Franco. Eirlys, so softly optimistic, had fought in her youth for the Welsh language and been imprisoned in a cell already bloodied. The warders referred to her as "it".

The minor characters are richly realised: Waldo, Eirlys's cousin, composing, in Welsh, poems never mentioned in the ancient texts ("when a series of haikus had struck him like Frisbees, what could a poor hack do but put up his hand to receive them?"); the odious Hugh, petty and perma-tanned; mild Megan, the former tax-inspector, who is plucked from The Eyrie and put into a series of homes by callous or collusive relatives; Sandy, the not-quite-reformed soak living in "Testosterone Flat". Through the characters of a chip-shop owner and two removal men, Davies offers a gentle dig at the non-Welsh speaker's part defensive, part disingenuous habit of treating the language as if it were some sort of pretentious, foreign folly.

Dora is by many volts the most vivid of the three central characters, with her ferocious integrity offset by egomania, tenderness and an almost elemental capacity for love. Eirlys, a lesser creation though as good a creature, is more than the "communal udder" of Dora's description, and has moments of extraordinary lyrical perception: "she has her feet plunged in the firmament," she thinks of Megan. Hannah alone remains unleavened by any particular individuality. She's a Bright Young Thing with a warm heart and a good mind, and that's it. You follow her search for her father dutifully, but with your eyes always darting about in search of distraction.

It's a book of dying falls, in many senses: Dora's grand sabotage dies in the ether, Eirlys's nascent romance curdles beside her fitness machine. Nothing is ever fully achieved, but there is nothing of the wake to this book. It is deeply joyful, and magically written, as full of sea swell as of rasping barnacles.