On the 10th December the book group met to discuss The Voices of the Children by George Ewart Evans. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s childhood and is set in a rural mining South Wales village before the Second World War. As its title suggests, the narrative revolves around the children of the Pritchard family, mainly the three boys – Willie, Nipper and Arthur and their older sister Dinah, while the parents are very much background figures. The book is divided into three parts rather than into chapters, but we thought that it wasn’t necessary as they don’t deal with different themes. We discussed whether the book, being semi-autobiographical, should be read as a memoir or whether it can be read as a piece of fiction. We thought that that it is possible to read it as a novel, but acknowledged that it doesn’t have a particularly strong storyline and the story moves through the individual characters.
We enjoyed the book and found it a short and easy read although it was suggested that the portrayal of Evans’ childhood and Wales in general was too idyllic even at the points where he was trying to show otherwise. You certainly don’t get the gritty and dirty view of growing up typical for industrial novels from the same period. Moreover, one reader thought that one of the book’s weaknesses is the lack of the angst of growing up present in The Island of Apples which we discussed last month. On the other hand, however, another member considered it an asset and thought that the book was quite realistic and had a comforting feel.
One passage we found particularly striking was Willie’s dream in which the moon descends to Jenkins’ field and the whole village gathers to discuss what to do with it. The crowd splits into four groups each of which sends a representative who preaches to the moon and, eventually, they roll the moon to the sea. This rather bizarre passage is one of the very few surrealist pars of the book and can be read as satirizing nonconformity, but we also considered it an important breaking point in Willie’s development during which he becomes aware of the wider community for the first time.
For me personally, one of the strong aspects of the book is its humour. Willie’s observations (Uncle Tom sighed deeply as the suction fan in the pit) and the boys’ banter when made to do the washing (Have you been cleaning your boots with your cuffs? What colour’s your trousers, Nipper, dark black or ebony?) are spot-on and adding authenticity to the characters.
Overall, we concluded, this book can be read as an account of the author’s childhood, a story of Willie’s coming of age or a book about the cycle of life, the narrative being framed by two births – one of Willie’s sister at the beginning and his niece at the end.