NWR Issue 63

Another Country

In New Welsh Review 61, I responded enthusiastically to Tony Bianchi's recent article on the Welsh noir novel, which had appeared in the online Welsh-European journal, Transcript. With the editors' permission, a slightly revised version of that essay is printed in this issue of New Welsh Review: it is an important and sensitive piece of criticism. At the time, I was concerned to respond to Bianchi's article from a post-colonial perspective, but I did also point to the profoundly masculine nature of noir. While removing the notion of noir from its literary 'straitjacket' does indeed lead to a revealing appraisal of recent fiction in Welsh and English, especially in the context of contemporary fictions of nationhood, the door remains firmly closed on the majority of women's writing coming out Wales.

This seems all the more ironic given the number of new novels by women from Wales that have landed on my desk in the last few months, and most interesting of all has been the role played by Honno, the Welsh women's press, in this sudden flowering of new work. It is of course impossible to draw any hard and fast conclusions about the current state of women's writing in Wales, particularly in terms of its cultural context, without standing back and surveying the bigger picture. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are various aspects of contemporary Welsh women's writing in English which deserve further exploration and which, with time, are sure to attract a more thoroughgoing critical appraisal than I can offer here.

The common concerns and issues which emerge in most of the books. I have read over the last few weeks confirm that there is still good reason to believe that women's writing occupies 'another country', which for a Welsh woman results in numerous cultural and literary contradictions. Since so many novels published in Wales now aren't by Welsh writers at all, and some of Wales's best writers are in fact now published out of London, any discussion of such notions will obviously suffer from a necessary fragility, and it is certainly impossible to come to any overarching conclusions. All the same, as I delve into a heap of advance copies and novels-in-proof, I find myself confronting some of their common themes and concerns.

In terms of literary talent, two clear frontrunners are immediately identifiable: Stevie Davies's Kith and Kin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) and Trezza Azzopardi's Remember Me (Picador). Kith and Kin I have read cover to cover, while Remember Me - a recent arrival - I have just begun, so my response has to be provisional, but each novel clearly possesses the clarity of voice and mastery of craft and style for which both writers have become well known. Both, interestingly, are concerned first and foremost with memory, most particularly with the faultlines that occur in the process of remembering. Stevie Davies takes a retrospective approach, with her protagonist, Mara, reviewing events from the standpoint of middle age. The reader is shuttled smoothly between past and present in a seamlessly lyrical narrative which manages to fuse episodes of poetic density into a present consciousness with a control that seems effortless, but which is clearly the work of a highly experienced novelist. Such is her control over her material that what could seem like 'overwriting' in any other author comes through as passionate and believable prose, so that the remembered character, Francesca, who is presented to us through Mara's consciousness, becomes entirely credible and as complex as any of the characters occupying the present time of the novel. Trezza Azzopardi, on the other hand, 'underwrites' with a beautiful simplicity that permits her also to move her reader through the present into the past, in a narrative which is far more impressionistic than Davies's and yet equally sophisticated. Azzopardi establishes a mysterious and compelling present context for her protagonist before pulling her reader back into the character's childhood. While both novels could be said to occupy territory familiar to 'women's fiction' - issues of family, inheritance and parentage - each author is knowing enough to complicate such issues from the very outset. In Kith and Kin, for example, we learn that Mara has become a respectable health professional since her heady days as a young hippy, and that she works with individuals with missing limbs who can still feel pain in the absent extremity. This physical trigger, this uncontrollable echo of what once was, or at least might have been, clearly symbolises the inherently problematic nature of our relationships with memory.

A more straightforward family saga which has received widespread coverage in the broadsheets, Tessa Hadley's Everything Will Be All Right (Cape), I found prosaic and disappointing. Written in the tradition of accessible and truthful stories about women through the generations - in many respects this book is reminiscent of Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman (Chatto & Windus) - Hadley's second novel is terrifying in its very ordinariness. This may well be the intention of the author, but the blandly written prose offers no respite from the hopeless lack of transcendence in the lives of the three generations of women depicted by Hadley. It is admittedly far more courageous to be truthful and to expose society and women's place in it for what they are than to indulge in literary flights of fancy, and I did in fact come to care about some of the characters, especially Zoe (the representative of the 'middle generation'), with whom the author seemed to have an especial empathy herself. However, while this kind of careful unpicking of women's experience of sexual liberation clearly has its own readership, it isn't ambitious enough for me. Ironically enough, I found a non-fiction book on the subject of women's experiences of sex far more touching and emotionally
sophisticated - Honno's Laughing Not Laughing, edited by Catherine Merriman. Merriman herself has recently published a new novel, Brotherhood (Parthian), which eschews all the conventions of women's fiction in order to explore the inner turmoil of a male biker protagonist, and as the book jacket shows, she has taken on a neutral new publishing name, C. A. Merriman.

One new novel that I have found surprisingly enjoyable is Lindsay Ashford's Frozen, a foray from Honno into crime fiction which is both tautly written and neatly plotted. Had it been set in Swansea or Cardiff instead of the West Midlands, it would have had the potential to have been turned into an excellent Welsh version of TV serials such as Prime Suspect. Despite its evidently popular appeal, the novel addresses many of the questions with which more literary writers such as Davies, Azzopardi and Hadley concern themselves. Our Helen Mirren-style protagonist faces chauvinism and ignorance among police officers and crime professionals, and is ultimately as sexually vulnerable as the prostitutes whose murders she is investigating.

Honno are clearly not afraid of breaking new ground, as is shown by another recent first novel, Falling, by Debbie Moon. Although this kind of fantasy fiction isn't to my taste, it is well written and pitched to a market beyond the literary, which shows the adventurousness and commercial edge of this publisher's recent commissions. This hasn't prevented Honno from paying attention to both their Classics list and long established authors: their recent volume of Welsh women's poetry edited by Catherine Brennan and Katie Gramich is a solid, landmark publication, and a new novel from Siân James, Summer Shadows, is due to be published later this year. A short memoir by James, published for the first time in this issue of New Welsh Review, shows that she has lost none of her sharpness and wit. She brings to her work an edge and piercing vision lacking in more ordinary tales of relationships between men and women.

A few years ago, I had begun to wonder about the ongoing viability of women's presses in both Wales and England, but recent successes from Virago (such as Sarah Waters' Dickensian trilogy) and commercially astute additions to a strong backlist at Honno suggest that there is life yet in this separatist approach to publishing, and, moreover, that there is both a rhyme and a reason to it.


previous editorial: 'Hiraeth' and a new cultural ecology
next editorial: Dylan Adieu


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