MacLehose Press, £10, 159pp. £9.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Life of Rebecca Jones: A Novel, By Angharad Price, trans. Lloyd Jones
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 20 April 2012
In 1964, BBC Wales made a short film about three brothers, blind from birth or infancy, raised on a farm in the lovely and remote valley of Maesglasau, east of Dolgellau in Merioneth. Their genetic fate both closed and opened doors. Special education away from home meant that Gruff went to Oxford and became an Anglican clergyman. William – who returned to the farm – worked as a polyglot Braille editor. Lewis, the Benjamin of the family, would programme computers and, in retirement, become a prize-winning blind artist.
In old age, Rebecca Jones – their sister, whose first-person story the siblings' great-niece Angharad Price tells in this novel – was able to watch the film of these "local celebrities" on a video. It broke her heart. "The greatest pain was the lie perpetrated by the film. It seemed to say that nothing changed, yet showed clearly that nothing lasted. It 'immortalised' the visible world. Yet I – who had been invisible in the film – was the only one who still lived."
This beautiful book, with the many meanings of blindness and insight at its heart, traces a path not only between the visible and invisible worlds but between memory and imagination, past and present – and fact and fiction. Price, an academic at Bangor University, won the National Eisteddfod prize for prose in 2002; Lloyd Jones's perfectly-pitched English version now graces MacLehose's august list as its first translation from Welsh.
Price does indeed belong to this family and this place. In 2012, they will mark 1000 years of living and farming in Maesglasau. Yet this fictionalised memoir – the life of great-aunt Rebecca, with her near-mystical devotion to the "tranquillity" and "continuance" of the valley – contains at the end a reversal which both overturns and transfigures all that has gone before. An introduction hints at this revelation; skip it until you have read the story.
Born in 1905, into a family whose Welsh-language roots have long nurtured scholars, poets and translators, Rebecca grows up in a culture both punctuated by the rhythms of the sheep-farming year and "laden with literature". This heritage is symbolised by an "oxblood chest" of old books, stretching back to William Salesbury's Welsh scriptures of 1551. Savouring every precious word, Rebecca imagines her parents' lives in the valley, "the vessel of their marriage". The three sons' blindness both wrenches the family away from the old ways and makes Rebecca so fiercely determined to preserve tham: "Tradition had a hold on me from the moment I was born."
Yet, for all the ravishing evocations of the Tynybraich farmlands, with stream, mist, wood and hillside her constant companions through the "quicksilver" moods of the seasons, Rebecca and her siblings come to live a kind of modern life. A boarding-school for the blind, and then Oxford, teach Gruff "regularity, discipline, hierarchy"; William, although a helpmeet at home, contributes to the global network of Braille publishing; Lewis, in Nottingham, earns his living first from telephony, then computing.
Their elder, sighted brother Bob takes over the property, an "unwilling farmer" but voracious reader, vigorous debater and Labour Party activist. As for Rebecca, she rejects the cruel pieties of chapel religion. Even while she works as a home-bound seamstress - and, as the beloved unmarried sister, becomes the "anchor" of the family – she mocks the patriarchal norms of Father's era and "this detestable tradition of woman as maidservant".
Straightforwardly moving yet highly sophisticated in its telling, Rebecca's life-story touches with subtle artistry on the nature of narrative, memory, vision and – a key concern for a book grounded in the "continuance" of Welshness – language itself. Rebecca's unspoken love for Angelo, an Italian POW billeted at Tynybraich, finds its focus in the intimacy of their tongues: his window, finestra, is her ffenest; his bridge, ponte, is her pont; his body, corpo, should but never will unite with her corff. Even the self, moulded like a glacial cwm by the cultural pressures of centuries, comes to seem to Rebecca just a "patchwork quilt of memories", its identity merely "the act of sewing the seams".
Price's book achieves a rare feat indeed. A lovingly crafted account of Welsh-speaking rural life on the brink of dissolution or at least transformation, it serves both as a touching, tender document and as a thoroughly artful exercise in storytelling – one that, in methods and motifs, can claim a place on the shelf beside Berger, Sebald and Ondaatje. Widely hailed as the first Welsh classic of the 21st century, it now stands tall –whether great-aunt Rebecca would have liked it or not – as a peak of modern British writing too.
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