In our January meeting Reading Wales book group discussed The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price. This book was originally published in Welsh under the title O! Tyn y Gorchudd (O! pull aside the veil) and has since become a classic. It won the National Eisteddfod Medal in 2002 and was named the Welsh Language Book of the Year at the Hay Festival in 2003.
The book is a semi-fictional story of Angharad Price’s family living in the Maesglasau valley. It captures the history of several generations of her ancestors and is told from the point of view of the author’s great aunt, Rebecca.
Because we discussed the English version of the book, we started our discussion with comparing the Welsh original to the English translation. Some of our book group members pointed out that they preferred the book in Welsh because it is written in a lyrical, classic Welsh literary style, echoing the style of Kate Roberts and T. Rowland Hughes, which is lost in translation. They found the English text a bit ‘clunky’ and the translation inaccurate at times. Nevertheless, as one reader pointed out, while something is lost in translation with regard to style, by publishing an English version, the book gained wider audience, including the non-Welsh-speaking members of the author’s family.
We thought that while the book can be seen as fictionalised oral history, it is also a portrait of a disappearing culture and way of life and some of the real events (Rebecca’s death and the blindness of her three brothers) can also be interpreted symbolically as the loss of the Welsh-language culture and the blindness of people towards its value. This is also seen in the tension between Rebecca, who prefers to stay behind in the old house and her brother Bob, who welcomes modernisation. Despite what the title of the book may suggest, Rebecca’s death is actually a central part of the story and it, without giving too much away, comes as a surprise and makes the reader rethink the whole book.
The main theme of the book as well as the goal which Rebecca hopes to achieve in writing the story of her family is continuance. It is both the continuance of the author’s family, who, as the book says, have been living in the valley for a thousand yearsand it is also continuance of the Welsh-language culture. The book is neither plot- nor character-driven, it is rather a semi-biographical account of the author’s great aunt as well as a book about a simple farming way of life and finding value in it. We liked the rich detail of the descriptions of day-to-day farming life in the Maesglasau valley, but we thought that the author was at times constrained by the material and the book worked better when she could escape the facts and her own voice came through.