MULTI-MEDIA Dewi Huw OwenNWR Issue r14
Review of novel Plant y Dyfroedd by Aled Islwyn
Dewi Huw Owen reviews novel Plant y Dyfroedd by Aled Islwyn, published by Gomer. A powerful novel following the story of headteacher Oswyn Morris and considering the place of his Cardiff locality through history. Directed and edited by Ieuan Jones, produced by Sian Roberts. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
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Dewi Huw Owen reviews novel 'Plant y Dyfroedd' by Aled Islwyn, published by Gomer from New Welsh Review on Vimeo.
Transcript of Audio Review by Dewi Huw Owen
Welsh-language novel Plant y Dyfroedd
by Aled Islwyn
Plant y Dyfroedd
, the eleventh novel by the award-winning author Aled Islwyn, investigates the social history of Cardiff across the centuries, through the collected personal histories of its inhabitants.
Set in the fictional suburb of Y Dyfroedd (The Waters), the novel centres on the relationships between Rwth, a single mother tasked with researching local history in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the neighbourhood primary school; Mr. Oswyn Morris, the school’s disgraced first head teacher, and self-appointed keeper of the folklore of Y Dyfroedd; and Mr. Morris’ stories themselves.
These tales stretch from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, and combine to paint a vivid picture of the area’s development during four hundred years of social and civic change. They recount the fates of the forgotten residents of Y Dyfroedd – young women vilified by their superstitious community, young men struck by the hardships of industrial life, families torn apart by scandal, and parents burdened by loss. These are the lives that we are told that Mr. Morris sets out to save from the constant flow of the changing world around him.
The transience of suburban life underpins every aspect of this novel: from the initial flooding that drenched the land to give it its name, to Rwth’s modern world as she grasps for information about a home which is both familiar and alien to her. She, like so many others on the committee preparing for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, is a newcomer to this place, unaware of the layers of history hidden beneath the concrete.
Mr. Morris’ tales give her context, but also reveal that suburban life was ever thus. The draws of economic prosperity, changing industrial opportunities, and various interpretations of worldly freedom, countered by the pushback of diasporic disassociation, human suffering, and an innate sense of belonging elsewhere, have always ebbed and flowed like the tide in this seaside satellite of Cardiff. New people, new voices, and new stories, arrived with every high water as its waves washed away almost every trace of the old world they replaced unknowingly.
Inherent in this changing world is the desire of each new suburban generation to forget, or to be more precise, to never have even known, the hardships of Y Dyfroedd’s former residents. Time and again, in Morris’ stories and in Rwth’s modern day interactions, we see people who would treat their new home as terra nova, a land perpetually caught in a state of aspirational becoming. Indeed, Morris explains to Rwth that he was cast out of this entrepreneurial liminal space simply because he dared to ground it with a sense of history, and tried to pass on that historical awareness to the children under his care. ‘Y Dyfroedd’, to him, was a gift from God, a word that encapsulated a lineage, echoed a language, and lived as testament to a culture that had endured across the ages. ‘Y Dyfroedd’, to those around him, was a Welsh name for ‘The Doverod’, a place detached from any context, renamed and renewed with each and every utterance.
These stories certainly leave their mark on Rwth. Seeing them as partial allegories of her own life – in particular, of her relationships with her estranged husband, her good-enough-for-now boyfriend, and most importantly, her teenage daughter – she begins to notice certain features of this grey landscape that she would previously have simply disregarded. The seagulls haunting the streets and the occasional rat scurrying along a wall take on new meaning, and she starts to find herself frequenting places that she never would have thought to visit previously. In inquiring about the lives of those who went before, she starts to find her own feet in suburbia, and reassesses the tales that underpin her own, personal, reality.
Oswyn Morris, however, is no historian: he remains a story-teller throughout. His tales, though grounded, are still subjective replications of history. His own history, and these stories’ place within it, is equally as subjective. In a land where nothing is quite as it seems, a place that courts the illusion of perpetual newness, he too has things he would rather were forgotten, and a history he would prefer to wash away with the sea. His perspective, though initially appearing to be so different from the rest of Y Dyfroedd’s recently arrived residents, may well be a more accurate representation of the shifting reality of suburbia than any of the novel’s other characters. His is the voice of the suburb, whose only constant feature is the perpetual capacity for change.
This is a rich novel, wonderfully written and cleverly structured. The central tale is powerful and unsettling without ever becoming overwrought, and the surrounding stories, recited by Mr. Morris’ unreliable narrator, are compelling and rewarding. As behoves a story so focussed on the construction of story itself, Plant y Dyfroedd
leaves us with far more questions than answers on all of its key themes, and this is to its credit. Its voice, like those of the forgotten residents it chronicles, lingers on long after its words have been washed away with the world.
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