The smell of blood

Bernice Rubens's new novel is a tragedy of Greek dimensions played out in back-street lives. By Carol Birch: Yesterday in the Back Lane by Bernice Rubens Little, Brown, pounds 15.99

One wartime Christmas, in the lane that runs along the back of the Cardiff terrace where she lives, 17-year-old Bronwen Davies kills a would-be rapist with the carving knife she has just borrowed from her auntie. Coming home she pretends nothing has happened. "My voice," she says "was so ordinary it stunned me."

Ordinariness is the bedrock of this novel, the object of its compassion and the source of its power. Soothingly simple, the soft Welsh cadence of the now-septuagenarian Bronwen unfolds the story of a life of emphatic obscurity. Time and place are beautifully realised: the aproned mams at the school gate, front parlours for "best", Bakelite wirelesses, rationing and the luxury of tinned food. Never marrying, Bronwen becomes a teacher, lives with her parents and goes on holiday to the same hotel in Palma every year, returning with flamenco knick-knacks and a lobster-coloured tan. Ostensibly, nothing much happens.

But terrible memories underlie the calm - the knife slipping out "as if there were oil inside", its subsequent carving of the Christmas turkey, and far, far worse, the arrest, conviction and execution of an innocent man, husband and father of three, Hugh Elwyn Baker.

With his low forehead, bridgeless nose and sunken chin, he is, all agree, obviously guilty. Almost in passing we are told of the "little fingerwave of encouragement" sent across the courtroom by the poor man's shabby wife. Rubens's skill in the use of simple detail and calm understatement moves us profoundly; better than in any polemic, she calls the jury system into question and makes a case against capital punishment.

From a state of awed paralysis, we witness the farcical injustice of the trial through Bronwen's eyes. Clinging to detachment, she is often hard to like. Ultimately a survivor, she is quite prepared to use and abuse the feelings of those around her and she is staunch in her refusal to accept responsibility: "I had to face the fact that no one was to blame," she says. "If it was anyone's fault, it was God's for His random mismanagement." But her body tells a different story. Her nose gushes blood, manifesting like Banquo's ghost at inopportune moments throughout her life. An almost supernatural quality attaches to these bleedings, the visible, shocking testimony to the huge weight of guilt she drags about like Marley's chain.

Grim indeed. But this is not a draining read. The Rubens palette is lively and subtle, her touch light. The book is full of humour, much of it black, and if her characters' feelings are never flaunted, we are left in no doubt as to their power. This is an achingly poignant book, whose triumph is the depiction of the intensely moving in the everyday, a tragedy of Greek dimensions played out in back-street lives.

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