July Reading Group – ‘The Rice Paper Diaries’ by Francesca Rhydderch

This sunny Wednesday evening saw the fourth meeting of the Reading Wales book group at Palas Print in Bangor. It is great to have our regular members who make the group each month. If you would like to join us next month, click on the book group link on the home page.

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The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rhydderch

This month we read Francesca Rhydderch’s debut novel ‘The Rice Paper Diaries’ which was published in May this year. After reading a lot of Welsh classics (and on Eirian’s good authority that it was an interesting read!), it was refreshing to read a new release.

Generally there was a positive reaction to the novel – it was easy to read and we found the fictionalisation of the invasion of Hong Kong fascinating. We agreed that it is an aspect of the Second World War that is rarely spoken about and members of the group who enjoy historical fiction particularly liked ‘The Rice Paper Diaries’. Most of us agreed that it was Elsa and Lin’s sections of the book we enjoyed the most. It seemed that more research had been placed on these sections of the book. In these two sections Rhydderch achieves a brilliant sense of place as we really get to know what 1940s Hong Kong was like.

Where Rhydderch succeeds in the first half of the novel, we felt the same sense of place wasn’t quite achieved in the second, particularly in Mari’s section. We did enjoy the evocative description of Mari’s coming home on New Year’s Eve, travelling across West Wales in the dark. Rhydderch skilfully conveys Mari’s uncanny homecoming. She has heard her mother describe this journey many times in stories but the reality is unnerving. Yet, we felt that the dramatisation of New Quay didn’t match up to the sense of place achieved in Hong Kong. We wondered whether this was because the narrator is speaking through Mari, a young child who is only six years old. Would this section have been different had Mari’s character been a bit older?

The relationships between Elsa, Tommy and Oscar generated a lot of discussion. We really felt for Elsa and the loss of her baby at such a young age. Some readers thought Tommy’s section of the book could have been developed to show more of his thoughts and his interaction with Elsa, however we appreciated that the regimented style of the diary entries suited his personality. The polyphonic nature of the book sparked the most discussion. We spoke about other books that use this technique and agreed that we would have liked more variation. For example, once we had finished Elsa’s section we were disappointed that that was all we were going to hear from her – we wanted more! It would have been interesting to hear more of her thoughts, particularly whilst at the camp and about her relationship with Oscar.

We all agreed that the most subtle parts of the novel were the most effective. The reference to Elsa and Nannon’s kitchen table at the beginning and end of the book was brilliant. These moments really cemented the themes of family and home and what this meant in war-time Wales. It was these poignant moments (as well as minor, yet believable characters such as Lei the letter writer) that made the novel.  Rhydderch has a talent for creating poignant images that stay with you long after you have finished reading.

As a student of Welsh writing in English I was interested to see whether or not a novel like this could be studied on a Welsh Writing module. After reading it I think it would fit in well because it discusses themes such as exile and homecoming which are always present in Anglophone Welsh literature. This then led to a discussion amongst the group where we considered that  all of the books we have read so far have similar themes –prompting one reader to advise us to read Harri Webb’s poem ‘Synopsis of the Great Welsh Novel’. Clearly Webb was onto something here! 

Francesca Rhydderch will be talking about ‘The Rice Paper Diaries’ at the Gwyl Arall festival in Caernarfon next week. More information can be found here

May Book Group – Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise

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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.

Uncovering 19th Century Welsh Writers in English

For many, Caradoc Evans’ infamous collection of short stories My People (published in 1915) is considered the first example of Welsh Writing in English. It was this controversial work that led the Welsh press to name him ‘the best hated man in Wales’.

However, there are a variety of writers, many of them women, who were writing from and about Wales in the nineteenth century. I came across the novelists and short story writers Anne Beale and Allen Raine in Jane Aaron’s collection of Short Stories A View Across the Valley. Anne Beale (1815-1900) was born in Somerset but settled in Llandeilo in 1841. She published at least five novels and a collection of short stories titled ‘Stories and Traits of the Welsh Peasantry’, published in 1849 – nearly 30 years before Caradoc Evans was born! She had a successful career and is seen as the predecessor to the more well-known Allen Raine.

Anne Adaliza Evans (1836-1908) adopted the masculine pseudonym Allen Raine when she embarked upon an extremely successful career as a novelist, selling over 2 millions books in her lifetime. She was brought up in Newcastle Emlyn but it was her holidays in Cardiganshire that inspired most of her work.

Both Beale’s and Raine’s work has not been well regarded in the past as many critics have denounced their images of Wild Wales and their romantic love story plots. However, more recently their work has been taken more seriously and even considered as the first instances of Welsh Writing in English. Thanks to Welsh publisher Honno Allen Raine’s work is now becoming more accessible. Raine’s novel The Welsh Witch has recently been republished by the press that specialize in Welsh women’s fiction- I thoroughly recommend it!

Brenda Chamberlain and the Caseg Broadsheets

2012 saw the centenary celebrations of Brenda Chamberlain. Born in 1912, Brenda was brought up in Bangor and like many other Welsh women writers (including Margiad Evans) she initially trained as an artist.

A selection of her art work can be viewed on the Martin Tinney Gallery website.

Chamberlain is known within Welsh Writing in English for her accounts of island living including life on Ynys Ennli in Tide-Race and the Greek island of Ydra in A Rope of Vines.

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However, perhaps one her most interesting ventures was a project which allowed her to combine her passion for image and word. During the Second World War Chamberlain set up the Caseg Press in Llanllechid with the help of her partner, artist John Petts.

Alongside war poet Alun Lewis, the trio created the Caseg Broadsheets. Inspired by chapbooks and broadside ballads, the broadsheets featured original woodcut artwork by Petts and poetry from prominent Welsh poets of the time including Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts. Alun Lewis wanted to create an affordable piece of literature available to the masses. Unfortunately the broadsheets did not take off as they would have hoped as the team struggled to fund their venture. However, it is still possible to find original copies of these wonderful pieces of artwork that combine poetry and images that highlight Welsh artistic output during the war. Brenda Chamberlain’s own account of the process behind the  project is also documented in her book ‘Alun Lewis and the Making of the Caseg Broadsheets.’

Original copies can be found at Bangor University Archives.

Book Group – 16th & 17th April

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Thanks to everyone who came to the first meeting at Palas Print! We’ve decided to set up two groups, morning and evening – both meeting at Palas Print in Bangor. You can find Palas Print here.

In the first book group we will be reading ‘Country Dance’ by Margiad Evans which you will find in Bangor University Library, Bangor Library or you can buy it from Palas Print.

Country Dance presents a first person account of passion, murder and cultural conflict played out in the young Ann Goodman, who is torn by ‘the struggle for supremacy in her mixed blood’, Welsh and English. In this love story, set in the late nineteenth century, the rural way of life is no idyll, but a savage and exacting struggle for survival.

The first book groups will be on:
Tuesday 16th April @ 9.30am
Wednesday 17th April 5.30pm

If you haven’t already been in contact it would be great to hear from you if you’re thinking about joining either of the meetings.

Book of the Week – Shifts by Christopher Meredith

Deindustrialized Wales in the 1970s

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Anglophone Welsh writing gained momentum in the thirties yet there is a wealth of more recent writing to discover. The industrial novels of Lewis Jones and Jack Jones explore the boom and bust of the early twentieth-century, whilst Christopher Meredith’s debut novel Shifts (1988) explores the harsh reality of deindustrialisaton during the seventies- something which changed the industrial face of Wales forever.

The stagnant relationship of unhappily married Keith and Judith mirrors the decline of their steel town in the valleys. Shifts tackles themes such as emasculation and issues that surround the changing economic face of Wales.  Women are soon to become the breadwinners as the hard labour of the steelworks makes room for the ‘clean’ industry of the marshmallow factory.

Returning from England to his native Wales, no-good boyo Jack has left his English ex-girlfriend in the lurch and is about to embark upon an affair with Judith when he becomes Keith’s lodger. When Keith finds out about the tryst his reaction is not one you might expect from a man scorned. You’ll like this if you enjoyed Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Jack possesses the same Jack-the-Lad qualities of Arthur and both novels deal with the realities of relationships in working-class Britain.

A great read to compare against earlier industrial novels set in the valleys. Shifts as it title suggests deals with themes that are ever-present in Welsh Writing in English texts – industrial life and the passing of time.

Click here to buy ‘Shifts’ or browse other Welsh Writing in English texts at Palas Print.