NEW WELSH READERS' POLL 2017: BEST MEMOIR & NOVELLA LONGLISTS
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Virago) reviewed by Fiona Orbell
‘The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.’ Maya was a poet, actress and civil rights activist, as well as a memoirist. And this first from a series of seven autobiographical works is both powerful and beautiful in its use of language, simile and metaphor. Written in 1969, the book is a coming of age story that charts Maya’s childhood and the prejudice and abuse she suffered in the American deep south in the 1930s. I was deeply moved by her courageous story whilst being inspired by her lyrical and philosophical writing that above all celebrates the endurance of the human spirit. Angelou’s fiction writing techniques such as dialogue and plot were original for the time and enriched and broadened the memoir form. This is timeless prose that should be read and reread. Watch the video review here.
Fun House: A Family Tragi-comic by Alison Bechdel (Jonathan Cape) reviewed by Gwen Davies
The moniker 'tragicomic' combines three genres: tragedy, comedy & comic-book, and sets the tone for this poignant and funny genre-busting graphic memoir, set in a family-run undertakers ('fun home') in Pennsylvania. With as much family conflict as Six Feet Under, but with the funereal patriarch centre stage, Fun Home uses classical and literary palimpsests including the myths of Icarus and Dedalus (the latter both Joyce's Stephen and the original labyrinth-builder), the Bible and the lesbian canon (from Colette to Kate Millett) to revive each genre in turn. Tragedy: Alison's gay dad Bruce at the point they come out to each other, too little, too late. Comedy: Bruce Bechdel expresses his sexuality through floralising his home and daughter to the nth degree. Comic-book: this throwaway format is elevated to classical status with opening and closing strips casting Bruce and Alison in inverted or revolving roles as Icarus, the god that flew too close to the sun, and Daedalus, the pa that prompted him. Flaw-ridden, Bruce is cast as the anti-hero who catches Alison, thus allowing her to attempt flight in the first place. Clever, sustaining literature, with pictures. 'My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret.'
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog (Grove Atlantic) reviewed by Ashley Owen
The memoir opens: 'I am Mary Brave Bird, after I had my baby during the Siege of Wounded Knee, they gave me a special name: Ohitika Win. Brave Woman. And fastened an eagle plume in my hair singing brave heart songs for me. I am a woman of the red nation. A Sioux woman. And that is not easy.' The story that follows is brutally, fearlessly personal, and nationally relevant. Mary Brave Bird’s life, from her fatherless childhood in a one-room cabin, to her role in the revival of the Ghost Dance chronicle of the American Indian movement and daily American life in the twentieth century. It’s the story of a hostile world and the people who manage to survive in it. Watch the video review here.
The Vagabond’s Breakfast by Richard Gwyn (Y Lolfa) reviewed by Gwen Davies
In 2006, Richard Gwyn was given a year to live unless a suitable liver donor were found. A novelist and poet, he lost nine years of his life to vagrancy and alcoholism in the Mediterranean, principally Spain and Crete. This memoir is an account of his ‘lost’ years; of addiction and reckless travel; serial hospitalizations; redemption via friendship, imagination, intellect, love and fatherhood; recovery; living with viral hepatitis, and the life-saving gift of a liver graft. ‘This eternal recounting, this need to tell and tell, is there not something appalling about it - and not only in the sense of whether or not we consciously or intentionally mix reality and fiction? Are there not times when we wish the whole cycle of telling and recounting and explaining and narrating would simply stop - if only for a week, or a day; if only for an hour?’
The Scent of Dried Roses by Tim Lott (Penguin Classics) reviewed by Gwen Davies
A beautiful, evocative elegy to the London suburb of Southall. In its account of the recurrence of depression throughout generations of the author’s family, it is honest, highly perceptive and moving. In its treatment of the mother’s alienation and failure to accept and adapt to the changes caused by incomers into what she saw as ‘her suburb’, it is politically acute and topical. Scenes from this powerful memoir will remain in the reader’s mind across decades, especially the mother’s watercolour hobby preceding her suicide and the author’s self-imposed exile from his family and struggle with addiction. Factual writing at its best with the emotional impact and descriptive resonance of fiction.
Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory by Patrick McGuinness (Vintage) reviewed by Gwen Davies
At a time when voters seem to be searching for simplified forms of national identity, this book shows, as with Ali Smith’s novel, ‘how to be both’. The son of a diplomat, born in Tunisia, spending long holidays in the Belgian border town Bouillon (his maternal family home, the memoir’s setting and heart), splitting his time between Caernarfon and Oxford, Welsh speaking, a French literature academic, McGuinness should know about the subtleties of belonging. The form, with its snapshots, cameos, fragments and poetry, is innovative, and this title won Wales Book of the Year in 2015. Never will you read such a heartfelt, touching account of detachment and alienation. ‘One evening, my children asked for a picture of Marie Bodard’s [sweetshop], so we set about recreating it. Remembering makes things real –it’s the only guarantee that they’ve actually happened. Events owe their existence to memories more than memories owe their existence to events. Most of my childhood feels more real to me now than it did then.’
Old Soldier Sahib by Frank Richards (Parthian/Library of Wales) reviewed by Linda Rhinehart
This memoir, written by Frank Richards (the pseudonym of Francis Philip Woodruff) in 1936 (and reissued by Parthian recently in the Library of Wales series), is interesting primarily due to its honest and detailed first-hand accounts of everyday life with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the British army in the then-British colony in the early 20th century: ‘There were thousands of wild monkeys around Kalsi; they were not much larger than the monkeys that are carried by some of the Italian organ-grinders at home. It was also a bad place for snakes, and notices were put on the trees warning men to beware of them.’ Richards also manages to convey the sense of purpose and imperialistic pride behind the conquest and occupation of India. This makes for uncomfortable reading at times, especially as the author wholeheartedly agrees; however it does dispel any romanticised notions of imperialism and colonialism. His account in the first few chapters of his early life working in a coal mine in Monmouthshire is of particular interest, since it allows for greater insight into life in Wales during the late Victorian and Edwardian era. While this book is very much a product of its time, it is also often amusing and insightful.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage) reviewed by Mayoorhan Sevverlz
It is this book’s graphic form that makes this memoir so impressive. Satrapi tells the story of her life from childhood, to her college years, and how it was affected by the war between Iran and Iraq. It is the sort of story that has been told time and time again, one of oppression, and rising up against it; but with a bittersweet melancholy throughout. ‘The era of grand revolutionary ideas and demonstrations was over.’ The greatest strength of the memoir is how it isn't just regular prose transcribed into a graphic novel form, it uses its form to its advantage. The way this story is presented can only function with the aid of its illustrations. The high-contrast simplicity of the drawings adds so much to the way this story is told, with the dialogue and text simply acting as a means to present context. The text adds the practical information, the illustrations are where the heart of the story truly lies, and where it delivers a real punch. To put it simply, it's great, and highly recommended, as is its animated film adaptation, interestingly also co-directed by Satrapi. While not comparable to the memoir, it too has its own unique method to its storytelling.
Walden: or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau (various) reviewed by Linda Rhinehart
In this memoir of 1854, Thoreau mixes lyrical descriptions of life in the woods and of the animals he encounters with social commentary and sometimes biting criticisms of contemporary societal customs, such as the drive to buy useless items and the unwillingness of many to properly see the world around them. He states that: ‘Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth’. Thoreau is at his best, thrilling even, when describing the natural environment, its seasons and processes, especially in the later chapters. Some may disagree with his prescriptions for life that does not have anything to do with nature, but nevertheless Walden is a key philosophical text of the American Transcendentalist movement, and should remain widely read.
Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams (Planet Books) reviewed by Mayoorhan Sevverlz
Identity is easier to define for some people than it is for others. Some people know exactly who they are, and have all the confidence in the world about it. For others it's not so simple, and Williams explores her own identity throughout Sugar and Slate. As a mixed-race individual, she knows that she is both Welsh and African, but never feels like she wholly belongs as one or the other. It's this uncertainty that forms the undercurrent of the text, as she travels from Africa, to her father's hometown of Guyana, back to Wales. ‘Home, the place you know, the place that knows you, the place you leave, the place to which you return, that place filled with memories and dreams, a place of ties and connections, that special hearth.’ The text has such a personal narrative voice, and when that's tied to the physical details that are littered throughout, it makes for a relatable and compelling read. Williams weaves together a journey of self-discovery that manages to power through its faults, and provides a very unique take on how one truly finds their identity.
The Tip of my Tongue by Trezza Azzopardi (Seren) reviewed by Ivy Napp
To summarise The Tip of My Tongue in one word I would say charming. Based loosely upon 'Geraint, Son of Erbin’, one of eleven stories from the Mabinogion, Azzopardi twists the tale into young narrator Enid and her experience as a child in the 1970s. Using all of her spy skills, Enid must navigate Uncle Horace's posh home and deal with her greatest nemesis cousin Geraint in a witty adventure that doesn't hold back on the sad and funny elements of childhood. Part of Seren’s novella series, New Stories from the Mabinogion.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (various) reviewed by Ashley Joy Owen
Edna Pontellier’s struggle to escape a loveless marriage and the burden of motherhood, lead to a passionate affair that ends when her lover abandons her. Edna makes a go of it alone as a woman in Victorian society but even every moment of her personal growth is tinged with tragedy. ‘A certain light was beginning to dawn within her, the light which showing the way forbids it.’ The final moments of Edna’s story demonstrate just how stifling it can be to balance personal identity with societal expectation. The Awakening is a blend of stark societal critique and lyrical narrative style that helped define the genre of the southern novel, which makes it especially relevant to me, and makes for a very powerful read. Watch the video review here.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (various) reviewed by Gwen Davies
This novella of 1902 may be a controversial choice since at least 1975 when Chinua Achebe claimed it was racist in its bolstering of Africa's stereoptying as primitive, unknowable & 'dark'. Were a book to attribute to Wales insulting iconography we would baulk at promoting it, runs the argument against its inclusion. Such images include goats or duplicity (the case during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) or promiscuity followed up by pious hypocrisy (the case during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) and sheepshagging, hymns and rugby (ad infinitum). The counter argument goes that Conrad's 'heart of darkness' was in fact Kurtz and European imperialism, and that Marlow's, and even the narrator's attitudes are not Conrad's own, though they do chime with the common contemporary view of Africa. In any case, with its tale within a tale structure, this is a classic novella. And such superlative, breathtaking writing: '...I saw this station, these [white] men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word "ivory" rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.... I've never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.'
Equivocator by Stevie Davies (Parthian) reviewed by Alex Hubbard
Somewhat paradoxically, there is almost too much within Davies’ 92-page novella to discuss in a brief space. It is an extraordinary read about the relationship between fathers and sons and the pressure of carrying a legacy that is not your own. Davies often looks to blend past literary works with her own – the title of the text is a reference to Macbeth and each chapter opens with a quote from an old myth – but despite this, the story feels truly contemporary. This is a piece about growing up and growing old, built with an intriguing and refreshingly inclusive cast of characters. It is easy to lose what marks the novella as such a unique form of cultural expression, but Equivocator will just as easily remind you.
Sings Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, trans Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories) reviewed by Gwen Davies
Required reading for Donald Trump as he steps onto his one in nil gradient learning curve on the complexities of national identity, especially as relates US-Mexican relations. This is a novella set among Mexico's drug mafia. It's structured around an Aztec Underworld myth and Dante's Divine Comedy. Herrera's well-adjusted heroine Makina moves through nine circles of hell across the US frontier with a message from her mother pleading that her brother return home. Porous political and linguistic borders, and adaptation are themes as well as identity theft, violence and assimilation. 'They are home-grown and they are Anglo and both things with rabid intensity. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak... an intermediary tongue... malleable, erasable, permeable, a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones, something that serves as a link.... a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born.'
The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (Granta Books) reviewed by Jacob Hume
The slow, cosy pace of The Long Dry, with its exhaustive detail regarding the farmhouse and its land (both almost characters unto themselves), belies the novella’s close attention to the quiet, unavoidable tragedies of rural life: the gruesome yet inexorable death of animals, and the incessant encroachment of urban dwellers and predatory bankers. Both the restlessness of Gareth’s children and the hovering presence of Kate’s mental illness bring the novella’s other themes into the twenty-first century, and beyond the scope of the traditional pastoral narrative. Despite this atmosphere of morbidity and subdued despair, this should not be dismissed as a tale for cynics, but as a peaceful celebration of the beauty and fragility of life; we are moved when Gareth finds a stillborn calf, and moved again when its twin is delivered safe and sound. The lot of a farmer is not shown to be clean and easy, nor hopelessly grotesque: it simply is, and always will be.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka reviewed by Mary Jacob
This novella is about a man who wakes up to discover he has turned into a cockroach. It can be read as a metaphor for many things: a dysfunctional family, obsessive fears, a dehumanising economic system, even contemporary British politics. Gregor tries to exit his bed headfirst and realises that he risks injuring his head so he reverses direction. This quote suggests possible ramification of another type of exit entirely: ‘It took just as much effort to get back to where he had been earlier, but when he lay there sighing and was once more watching his legs as they struggled against each other even harder than before, if that was possible. He could think of no way to bring peace and order to this chaos.’ Watch the video review here.
The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (various) reviewed by Gwen Davies
Belonging to the American Gothic genre, this novella is astounding in terms of its wit, precision, voice, atmosphere and especially structure, framed as it is with an eerie chorus provided by the local (most likely Georgian) chain gang. First published in 1951 and set in the post-Plantation or antebellum era, it pictures the violent reversal but also the waxing and waning of power, political, social, romantic and sexual. Critics noted this female author’s interest in so-called freaks (among them dwarfish ‘hunchback’ Cousin Lymon), but the superficially unfeminine protagonist, Miss Amelia Evans, may be more usefully regarded as a type of autistic woman before the age of labels, short of small talk, independent, physically strong and technically able, disregarding of gender and romantic conventions including marriage and dress. Miss Amelia, like this novella, is mannered, but she sure stands out from the crowd, and comes with the recommendation of Tennessee Williams and Graham Greene. ‘Within half an hour Miss Amelia had stomped down the stairs in breeches and a khaki jacket. Her face darkened so that it looked quite black. She slammed the kitchen door and gave it an ugly kick. Then she controlled herself. She read The Farmers’ Almanac, drank coffee, and had a smoke with her father’s pipe. Her face was hard, stern, and had now whitened to its natural colour… Towards dawn she went into her office and uncovered her typewriter, which she had recently bought and was only just learning how to run. That was the way in which she spent the whole of her wedding night.’
Animal Farm by George Orwell (various) reviewed by Fiona Orbell
‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ This simple but powerful satirical fable is a classic dystopian work of fiction that is easy to read and should be read by everyone. Orwell wrote this novella in 1943 as a fierce attack on Stalin, who was, at that time, Britain’s ally. However, the story is as pertinent today as ever in its depiction of the betrayal of the innocent. The narrative described what happens when the animals of Manor Farm form a rebellion and oust Mr. Jones, the inept farmer. A power struggle between the animals ensues and Orwell skilfully shows us how political principles can swiftly turn into propaganda and revolution into tyranny. I admire Orwell’s attempt to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. He uses irony and wit together with precise language to create an allegory about the abuse of power. As moving and resonant today as it was in 1943. Watch the video review here.
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter (Faber) reviewed by Suzy Ceulan Hughes
A beautiful, unclassifiable piece of writing. I might call it a novella because it tells a story and it is short or I might call it a memoir because although it is fiction, it is also true, drawing on Porter’s experience of losing his father when he was six. Or perhaps, it is a prose poem in four voices. The book tells of a man, a Ted Hughes scholar, whose wife dies, leaving him to cope with his own grief, and that of his two small sons. The three of them are helped along by Crow, who appears on the doorstep like some strange Mary Poppins. Porter has broken boundaries to create a book of great integrity, that is also sometimes very funny, as shown by this short quotation: ‘Come and look at this, Crow said. Your dad seems to be dead. Dad, are you dead? Dad, are you dead? A Long whining fart answered and Dad kicked out. Course he’s not dead, you boob, said my brother.’ Watch the video review here.
Thanks to Aberystwyth University Department of English & Creative Writing's students Ivy Napp, Alex Hubbard, Leanne Nulty, Rosie Malley & Jacob Hume for helping compile this longlist. New Welsh Review's Principal Sponsor is Aberystwyth University, and it is hosted within the university's Department of English & Creative Writing. The Editor & Awards co-judge, and the magazine's Marketing Officer are being shadowed by students from the Department in the planning, judging and execution of the prize.