In Milton's Hell, Lucifer walks across territory made of sheer fire: "such, resting, found the sole/ Of unblest feet". Jim Perrin's lament for lost loved ones is the testament of a survivor condemned to walk barefoot over burning marl. Mountaineer, travel writer, poet, psychogeographer, he suffered a catastrophic double bereavement, losing his son Will and his partner Jacquetta within a year of one another.
Perrin went west. Tearing himself from his home in Wales, he travelled to the west of Ireland; stumbled towards the mythic edge of the world: "I am alone with my dead in a place of the dead, and I do not want to live." West tells the story of his pilgrimage, looping through the narrative of his own life, the brief life of Will, also a mountaineer, and his passionate relationship with Jacquetta.
Seldom less than eloquent, sometimes orotund, Perrin's prose is rooted in the land and mythology of Wales and its two languages, the English tongue and yr hen iaith, the old language that named the earth of Wales and wrote upon it a palimpsest of human life. "This is a book I have to write, and at which task it seems every cell of my body protests." I came out at the end feeling that my face had been breathed on by fire; I had been washed in the writer's scalding tears.
The image of the beloved, "the red-haired woman in the blue dungarees walking away from me", is transferred to the reader's lens by the voice of Romantic lamentation. At no point did I feel I knew Jacquetta as a person. We know that Jac created from glass "designs of exquisite simplicity"; that she was a wild, fey being in love with nature; that she shared the writer's "magical thinking". Beautiful as this is, it leaves us ignorant of her interior world. The tempest grief is so loud, so egotistically sublime, as to drown out the qualities of the persons lamented.
Bereavement is like that. So is erotic love. Empathy is a cooler, subtler art. There is little empathy in West. The writing is theatrical; the brilliantly described natural scene a backdrop for romantic love. This is not to say that the book fails to impress. Its hand grasps your heart so violently as to leave thumbprints. At the same time, vast tracts of information seem to be skated over. Perrin quotes Freud to demystify (and subtly endorse) the story's compulsions and stratagems.
West succeeds more fully on the lyric and mythopoetic levels than as narrative. Its depiction of landscape and its creaturely inhabitants is peerless. Consider this trinity of forms in a natural space: "the lovely girl on the brink of womanhood, the beautiful woman approaching death, the quiet horse stooping in the long grass between them". Persephone and Demeter breathe again; Rhiannon, the tragic rider of the white horse, is somewhere nearby. And again: "A jay sears past in a flash of cinnamon and celestial blue." This sentence strikes me as the measure of the authentic beauty and pain of West. It is haunted by a long tradition of pastoral elegy that leads back to Theocritus, Virgil's "Lament for Daphnis", Milton's "Lycidas", Shelley's "Adonais".
Eros makes his home in the blood-soaked world of nature, built on a universal grave. In this haunted world, a jay does not fly or soar: it sears. The sighting is over in a flash like all temporal life. Light on its wings releases the unexpected blessedness of cinnamon. Its colour is not bright but celestial, hinting at another world of sacred purity, beyond our mired eyesight, washed though it is with tears.
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