REVIEW by Anna Stenning

NWR Issue 101

A Kingdom

by James Hanley

James Hanley should be better known than he is. This new edition of A Kingdom brings a neglected work of lyrical prose to light, one that explores the complexities of two estranged sisters coming to terms with the loss of their overbearing father. Hanley’s last novel, written in his eightieth year, is also the writer’s final work based on experiences in Wales, his adopted home for thirty years. Unsurprisingly given this context, it explores the author’s experiences of home and attachment.

The kingdom of this novel is both a small hill farm and the domain of influence of the father. Cadi, the youngest daughter at forty, prepares for her father Madog’s funeral with a mixture of stoicism and grief. Her estranged sister Lucy returns as the pampered wife of a postal worker in England. The two sisters’ attempts at communication provide the central tensions of the novel. Lucy’s meandering speech reflects her disengagement from her sister’s life; Cadi’s curt utterances transmit a repressed rage that makes reconciliation impossible.

Roots or rootedness to place are explored in the context of flight. While Cadi has a settled existence of farm and hearth, we discover that this only came about through an earlier displacement. Following the death of his wife, Madog abandoned the women’s childhood home at a forge in the north of the country to work as a lone farmer in mid Wales. Finding this new life unbearable, Lucy fled, prompting Cadi to return from an independent teaching position to replace Lucy as her father’s unpaid servant. Now, more than a decade later, Madog is still known locally as ‘the stranger’.

The dominant motif of this novel is relationship to the ground, which can either be oppressive or a source of hope. Cadi describes herself as ‘anchored’ to Pen y Parc farm. Her spiritual life exists in the context of her dwelling: we are told her ‘most conscious moment was pinned to ground’. More ambivalently, she later reflects how she and Madog became accustomed to their new life:

What I came to in this place brought me to ground. I bent to a new life, and seemed to sink further in and further down. We were both of us ignorant, knew nothing, but we learned in fifteen years. Yes. So I stayed, and gradually things I had been close to fell away, were no longer important to me.

Lucy is shocked that her father had been ‘suddenly sick of the ground on which he stood’ at the forge. She questions what made him ‘pull up his roots’. And yet she herself is displaced. For Lucy, her husband is her ‘real anchorage’.

Time takes on an aspect of fixity at Pen y Parc. There is only an outdated newspaper for David to read. Cadi treasures objects from the past, and the books she reads, The Golden Treasury and works by Twm o’r Nant, belong to earlier centuries. Cadi can almost see into the past beyond the darkened windows of her home:

The darkness seemed to vanish with a mere closing and opening of the eyes, and before her lay the green fields and she saw moving across them two close together men, their heads slightly bent, as they went forward to deal with the last of the first hay. So, rooted at this window, she was looking into another day and another time, and watching men walk on, closest to all they knew, was real, and would never end.

With its representation of the grinding details of farm life, A Kingdom avoids sentimentality. It’s not so much attachment to soil or origins as working relationships with her neighbours that make home possible for Cadi. David realises the sheer grind of farm life. He allows us to encompass Cadi’s small world with what lies beyond. Even though David can reach the farm by car, and take Cadi for a drive outside of the bounds of home, he cannot sever the ties of attachment that bind his sister-in-law to a remote community. These bonds include its language, shared work, and the farm animals that are her livelihood. Neither David nor Lucy comprehend that this anchorage exists in the place of loss – of sister, mother, Romantic love – and it is not the physical farm that makes Cadi’s home. Nor can we as readers penetrate the hints of incest and adultery that suggest reasons for the breakdown of homely comforts. Despite the talk of ‘ground’, the house itself and its surroundings are defined in terms of absence. Only the mountain prevails. Perhaps the neglected garden path suggests Cadi’s willing withdrawal from the world beyond. The need for flight is preserved in Cadi’s imaginative retreats into literature.

This edition has a helpful introduction to its under-acknowledged author by Neil Reeve, which sets the work in its context. Through its nuanced portrayal of a family that has experienced displacement, this novel successfully creates a haunting imaginary world that centres on a rural community without caricaturing its inhabitants.

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