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
Saturday 30 September 1995
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.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Hair loss explained: How and why men go bald
- 2 Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe the Stark may have a twin sister
- 3 Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
- 4 A pint of water every day is the key to losing weight, scientists say
- 5 Russia 'accidentally reveals' number of its soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine
Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe the Stark may have a twin sister
Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
Suicide Squad's Margot Robbie: Jared Leto's now more petrifying when out of his Joker make-up
Novel Scarlett Johansson tried to ban, Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See, to be published in UK
The Girl in the Spider's Web, David Lagercrantz, review: Stieg Larsson's heroes return in a thrilling new intrigue
Dresden riots: Protesters in Germany attack refugee buses shouting 'foreigners out'
France train shooting: US soldiers speak of the moment they stopped gunman and 'beat him until he was unconscious'
Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn accused of 'deluding' young supporters with 'claptrap'
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith calls for urgent ESA overhaul as part of drive to cut down welfare costs