Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise
The Reading Wales book group met on Wednesday evening to discuss Rachel Trezise’s award-winning collection of short stories Fresh Apples. After discussing Margiad Evans’s Country Dance in April, Palas Print owner Eirian James suggested a modern text. Eirian had read and loved the collection of stories when they were first published in 2005 and admitted that although she could not remember all of the stories there were certain images created by Tresize that had stuck in her mind over the past eight years. This was a quality of the stories that a lot of the group could identify with. Those of us who read short stories regularly agreed that it is usually imagery (in this case chickens, bubble-gum and train tracks) rather than plot lines we remember when it comes to short stories.
Some group members found Trezise’s subject matter of drug and child abuse challenging and would have preferred the stories to explore a wider range of issues. Some found the dark humour laugh out loud funny whilst others would have liked more hopeful outcomes for some of the characters. I suggested it would be interesting to read one of Rachel’s novels where the character development and the length of the text might provide more humour and further insight into character’s lives.
It was Rachel’s setting of the valleys that provoked the most conversation in the group. As a North Walian with no experience of the South Wales Valleys it is interesting to see how the place can divide opinion. One reader suggested the main character of Rachel’s stories are the valleys themselves – in the same way that the border country characterised Margiad Evans’s novella. However, we also agreed that the stories are not limited to South Wales – they could represent any post-industrial landscape. For me, the most interesting thing about the stories is how they represent a community that has changed very little in a post-industrial era. The dark humour and marginal characters reminded me of Gwyn Thomas’s depictions of the valleys – proving the issues at the heart of people’s lives have not changed over the twentieth century. This does not mean that life is always bleak but it does highlight the importance of community in these parts of South Wales. This was best summed up in my favourite story ‘Chickens’ which beautifully depicts the unique relationship between a young girl Chelle and her Grandad. It is these carefully drawn relationships between family and friends that we particularly appreciated as a group.
We all felt that the best is still yet to come from this young Welsh writer. One member wondered what Trezise’s future work might explore now that she has documented her experiences of the valleys. We also agreed that it would be interesting to read her latest collection of short stories Cosmic Latte, in order to see how her work has progressed over the last few years.
It wasn’t until the influence of heavy industry in the South Wales Valleys that English language fiction really developed into what we consider Welsh Writing in English today. A variety of factors including the development of English language education, immigration and the effects of industrialisation led to an upsurge in English language writing.
Many writers who form the basic canon of WWiE came from this first wave of writers in the 1930s. Although writers like Dylan Thomas and Gwyn Thomas spoke Welsh at home, it was English that was taught in school and the language in which they choose to express their experiences of Wales.
As the Welsh valleys experienced sudden anglicanisation, a variety of writers emerged telling stories of life in the mining communities of South Wales. Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) became the ‘exportable’ version of Wales sold all over the world – seen in the success of the book’s 1941 film adaptation. These visions of Wales defined early perceptions of Welsh Writing in English – Llewellyn’s depiction of Gilfach Goch was for many non-Welsh readers the only English-speaking Wales they had encountered in text or on-screen.
These images of Anglophone Wales are important to understanding the country’s industrial history, yet through my blog posts I aim to write about lesser-known authors of WWiE – those who have been marginalised, particularity women writers who have been neglected but whose work has much to say about Welsh experience.
Bleak yet bursting with wit, this trilogy of novellas explores the dark underbelly of a Welsh mining community but don’t let the dark subject matter deter you! These three stories are fine examples of the dark humour that Gwyn Thomas weaves through the lives of his characters.
The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas, Parthian.
Bordering on Magic Realism, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Just as Carter explores the sinister side to well-known fairy-tales, Thomas depicts a mining community tarnished and exploited by the industry that has overwhelmed the less-than-green valleys. In the first novella the eponymous ‘Oscar’ takes on an allegorical role, an exploitative ‘hog’ who owns a mountain with a colliery tip. Thomas describes him as having a voice that has a ‘slow greasy feel’ and a ‘mind like another man’s rear’. The stories consider violence, death and revenge in an austere landscape, yet the characterisation of the inhabitants of these villages provides the humour.
As Elaine Morgan notes in her introduction to the Library of Wales edition of the book it is surprising that Gwyn Thomas ‘found anything to laugh about’ at all. He was born the last of twelve children in 1913 in the Rhondda Valley and lost his mother at a young age. Yet emerging from a childhood plagued by illness his work is brilliant at defining the absurdity felt by those living in a vibrant community disturbed by industrialisation. In his autobiography Thomas describes the Rhondda where ‘streets shoot upwards at angles that suggest a neurotic impulse to be getting away from something.’ Despite the cramped conditions the community was full of song, laughter and gossip – drama that the community thrived on.
As a local Gwyn Thomas shows the world the paradoxical experience of living in the twisted, neurotic and absurd environment that was the valleys in the 1940s. Thomas’ love affair with his stomping ground continued throughout his life – only happy when he was back in the Welsh valleys. The Dark Philosophers demonstrates the prowess of a true wordsmith. Verbal wit abounds in these richly idiomatic and colourful short stories.
Check out YouTube to witness first hand a witty writer who has quite a way with words.