Monday, 10 October 2011

Back To My Roots

I am, as my family name suggests, of Celtic origin, but my roots are actually more Welsh than Irish, so I was more than happy to answer the call when Gary of The Parrish Lantern pointed me in the direction of Seren Books, a small Welsh independent publisher.  After making an enquiry, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of a book I liked the look of, Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail.  The book itself was a wonderful read, but (as you will see) the individual story is just part of a greater whole...

We begin with the character of Cilydd, an ordinary middle-aged man facing a slightly extraordinary problem.  After a trip to the local supermarket, his wife Goleuddydd, fiery, temperamental and very heavily pregnant, has... well, vanished into thin air.  CCTV shows nothing, and the police are unable to help, so Cilydd turns to his cousin Arthur, a private investigator, for help in unravelling the mystery.  Eventually, there is progress in the case, and poor Cilydd has to face up to some bad news.

The more he learns about what has happened, however, the more confusing the whole affair becomes.  He throws himself into searching for details of the disappearance, joining a network of people who have had similar experiences and becoming a sort of secretary, a filer of information about the disappeared.  Then, many years later, events take an unwelcome turn - and Cilydd begins to receive some rather disturbing phone calls...

If you think this book sounds a little left-of-centre, you wouldn't be far off.  This is not a Proustian study of reality, but rather a more ethereal story of losing a loved one and carrying on.  If I were to attempt to pigeon-hole it, I would have to suggest the genre of magical realism, and there is something distinctly Murakami-esque about proceedings.  It's also peppered with wry humour though, with Dafydd often eliciting a chuckle with an ironic comment or two (as in the following example):
"The look, the one she fixed him with week after week was actually tinged with desire, and in a bizarre twist of fate he found himself making love to her in a secluded spot in the community-hall car park.  It was the most wildly irresponsible and impetuous thing he had done since he had inadvertently pushed her husband off a cliff." p.61 (2011, Seren Books)

From the astounding disappearance which sets off the story, Dafydd sketches a chain of events in elegant and poetic language, a style which enhances the fairytale-like feel.  At times, the prose is a mixture of myth and the modern, further intriguing the reader:
"And so Culhwch, Cilydd and Arthur set out, in the thick of night in Arthur's old carpentry van, to find Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.", p.118
This is an image which definitely sticks in the mind...

The hapless Cilydd is a man completely out of his depth in a sea of unlikely occurrences, with his only possible ally being Arthur, a private eye of Dirk Gently proportions and someone who definitely has more to him than may first meet the eye.  As Cilydd stumbles from one surprise to the next, the reader becomes just as eager as he is to learn the full truth of what has happened.  When we do, it all begins to make sense - even more so on a second reading.

This all makes for an intriguing novel, one which I devoured in a few hours, before reading it again more slowly a few days later, but there is a lot more to The White Trail than there would appear from just an outline of the plot.  The book is actually a retelling, or reimagining, of a mediaeval Welsh folktale, Culhwch and Olwen, one of the eleven stories making up the Welsh-language collection of myths, the Mabinogion.  Seren Books have commissioned contemporary Welsh writers to produce their own versions of the classic stories, and there will eventually be eleven of these New Stories from the MabinogionThe White Trail is being released in October (along with another book, The Prince's Pen), bringing the number of books released so far to six.

Dafydd, while taking inspiration from the original, has shifted the focus somewhat in her version, making Cilydd the main focus of the reader's attention and concentrating on the way he copes with the disappearance of his wife.  You don't have to take my word for that though - the writer tells us that herself.  You see, another wonderful feature of this book, in addition to a short summary of the original Culhwch and Olwen, is an 'Afterword' (like an introduction, but at the end) by the author, in which she tells us about her experiences with the Mabinogion and the process she went through in adapting the myth to a modern story.  In this, Dafydd explains why she decided to shift the attention from the young lovers featured in the original to the glum Cilydd, and details some of the similarities and differences between the two versions.

On its own merits, The White Trail is a great novel and well worth reading; as part of a series of loosely-connected books, it is even more intriguing.  When you then throw in the idea of the original mythological background, this becomes the kind of book that a lot of people will want to read.  I, for one, am very interested in seeing what Dafydd's fellow writers will make of the remaining stories - and I am also keen on obtaining a translation of the Mabinogion itself (and I know that there is a version available in the Oxford World's Classics series).  Maybe it really is time to get back to my roots...