REVIEW by Claire Pickard

NWR Issue r33

The Levels

by Helen Pendry

Cover of The Levels novel by Claire Pickard published by Parthian

The Levels by Helen Pendry is a novel that has at its heart the twin concepts of mapping and navigation. The means used to map places, histories and cultures, and the ways in which human being navigate their relationships – both to these concepts and to one another – provide the overarching themes that hold together this wide-ranging and ambitious novel.

The Levels opens when Abby Hughes, who works in a hostel for the homeless in London, receives a postcard from former resident Tegid Rhys, bequeathing her his camper van, and bearing the cryptic message, It was my fault. Earlier in his life, Tegid had developed computer cartography programmes that were designed to counter the effects of flooding, but were subsequently adapted for military use. Abby fears that the postcard is a form of confession, indicating his involvement in a drone accident that killed a young mother in mid Wales. Abby’s subsequent journey to Wales – a country she associates strongly with memories of her maternal taid (grandfather), and her search for the truth about the accident – provides the motivating force for the novel’s plot.

Abby finds her way to Tegid’s last known home – the campervan she has inherited – using one of his hand-drawn, highly idiosyncratic maps. Rejecting the conventional mapping techniques that he felt were designed purely for ‘military and colonial purposes’ and that in turn warped ‘the very structures of our thinking and seeing’, Tegid’s maps highlight the history of an area, providing the names of those who lived there and giving an insight into the sensory experience of being within a specific landscape. For Abby, they simultaneously disrupt and reconstitute the world, giving access ‘to a different colour spectrum’ and enabling her to observe ‘the hidden landscape’.

Tegid’s map does indeed lead the protagonist towards her destination, but, more significantly, it forces her to confront her own ‘personal geography’ and the loss she experiences due to be being severed from her Welsh heritage. Such feelings are most acute in relation to her lack of knowledge of the Welsh language – ‘the gap in me where the Welsh could have been if my mother had thought it worth passing on.’ These emotions are brought further into focus through Abby’s conversations with local activist Delyth, who has moved to the area ‘because I wanted to live in a place where I could use my own language every day’. For Delyth, her move has fulfilled this need – for now – but she remains sharply aware of the constant encroachment of English. Such encroachment is made physically manifest in the black hole of the mine adit, or passageway, and the timber forests, that dominate the landscape where Abby conducts her search for Tegid. These markers bear testimony to the forces that have imposed themselves upon this landscape – economically, historically and politically – and sought to subdue, transform and exploit it.

The latest example of such an imposition is the plan to turn the abandoned quarrying village of Bethania into a military training ground. The involvement of the shadowy Consortium behind this development in the events surrounding the drone accident and Tegid’s disappearance provide the thrilleresque elements that propel the novel forward. Ultimately, however, what captures the reader’s interest is not simply the dynamics of these events, but the questions they raise about ideas of identity and belonging – and about the way in which we inhabit the world. On his postcard, Tegid advises Abby to ‘find somewhere to settle down with children and animals’ – advice she initially resists as ‘sexist crap… from an older man who abandoned a regular life and committed relationships’. But over the course of the novel, Abby reassesses the value of this suggestion. By charting – often literally – the course of her reassessment, The Levels ultimately leads both protagonist and reader to confront the question of what is a ‘good’ life – both in terms of personal happiness, and also in the sense of not doing harm to the world in which such a life is lived. Abby’s hunt for Tegid becomes more than a hunt for the man himself; it becomes a hunt for the ‘better way of being on this earth’ that he represents.

Abby’s tentative relationship with former soldier Owen hints at one way in which she might achieve such a sense of ‘being’. She wonders whether the pair of them ‘could maybe bring a home into existence, without a blueprint’. As the novel ends, Abby is left reflecting that water represents ‘the place and time of dreams and possibilities’ from which ‘will come a beautiful new world. Or monsters’. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader uncertain which of these futures awaits Abby – or indeed, ourselves.

Claire Pickard writes for New Welsh Review.

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previous review: Seahenge: A Journey
next review: Riverflow


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