Sunday, 10 August 2014

'The Life of Rebecca Jones' by Angharad Price (Review)

While I've covered many languages over the course of the past few years, there are so many others out there that I haven't managed to get to.  Luckily, today's post sees me rectifying that situation with a language that's very close to home, both geographically (my hometown in England is not too far from the border) and biologically (with two of my grandparents born there, it really is the land of my fathers).  I'm sure most of you will have worked it out by now, but let's see where Women In Translation Month is taking us today :)

Angharad Price's The Life of Rebecca Jones (translated by Lloyd Jones, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is a beautiful little book, an elegant look at the life of a woman who has spent her whole life in a secluded valley in North Wales, the heart of the Welsh-speaking community.  Part biography, part history, the book starts with the narrator at the end of her life at the beginning of the twenty-first century, from where we follow her back to the beginning of the twentieth century to see her mother and father returning after their wedding to their home in the valley of Maesglasau.  This sets the scene for Rebecca herself to appear in 1905 (and on page nineteen).

What follows is a leisurely journey through the life of the family over the next hundred years, and despite being secluded in the middle of nowhere, it's actually a rather eventful story.  With brothers born into blindness, and the risk of infant mortality ever present, growing up wasn't as easy as it might have been.  At times, she compares the unfolding of her life to the course of the stream running through the valley, even if she admits that there are limits to this comparison:
"Indeed a stream is not the best metaphor for life's regular flow between one dam and the next.
 I have not mentioned the reservoirs.  In these the emotions congregate.  I approach them with hesitation.  I stare into the still waters, fearing their hold on my memories.  In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths."
p.35 (MacLehose Press, 2014)
On the whole, Rebecca relates the ups and downs calmly, making a hard, bitter life sound calm and desirable.  We always suspect, though, that there's something more below the surface, just waiting to be uncovered.

The Life of Rebecca Jones is a wonderful little book, and it's already considered as a Welsh-language classic, despite having been written a mere dozen years ago.  The original title (O! Tyn y Gorchudd, which translates to 'O! Pull aside the Veil') is taken from a hymn written by a resident of the valley centuries ago, but the significance goes beyond its writer.  There's an obvious nod towards the blind brothers, but there's also a hint that our sight is also limited, with certain things beyond our view.

While the plot, as it is, is fairly simply, the book is wonderfully descriptive.  It opens our eyes to a life that seems light years away, but is, in fact very similar to that lived by our own grand-parents and great-grand-parents.  The family live a life dictated by the elements, matters revolving around seasonal events such as harvest time and shearing.  For those of us accustomed to supermarkets with an almost unlimited array of food, the idea of only being able to eat what's in season (and only having fresh meat for a few months of the year) is a rather alien one.

Life's hard for everyone, but it soon becomes clear that it's doubly so for women.  The farmer works hard outside, but the wife's job spans a much wider area, with cooking, cleaning and  child-minding added to various outdoor jobs, including bringing food to the workers.  It's not a situation which would be accepted today, but Rebecca sees it as a natural consequence of the farm environment:
"At important times, such as shearing or harvest, Mother was expected to do her share of the tasks, in addition to preparing food and drink for a horde of men twice in a day.  After clearing the table she'd go out to work again until sunset.  Then she'd need to prepare supper for everyone and put us children to bed, after which she'd clean the tens of plates and dishes that had accumulated during the day.
 My father never offered to help.  It wasn't expected." (p.23)
Yes, it was still very much a man's world, as shown during one of Rebecca's rare trips to England.  Visiting Oxford, she's dazzled by the beautiful college buildings - it's just a shame that, as a woman, she's not allowed to see what's inside...

With the story being a mere succession of events, there's a danger of the novel becoming pretty, but dull, but towards the end of the story, change is skilfully woven into the structure.  Events move more quickly, changes become more obvious and progress rears its head - whether it's an ugly or attractive one depends on your point of view.  Certainly, many changes are welcome; the coming of electricity means that light can be had at any time of day, and the invention of the washing machine turns a day's hard labour into an hour sitting chatting over a cup of tea.

However, not all change is for the better, and as helpful as these innovations are, they actually help to speed up another trend, that of the demise of the local way of life.  As Rebecca sits in her ancient cottage in the twilight of her years, she sees the demographic shift sweeping across the valley, with young Welsh people moving away and the middle-class English moving in to enjoy the idyllic scenery.  She also sees into the future, predicting the gradual, yet inevitable, erosion of the status of Welsh, as English becomes used in more and more places, eventually displacing the local tongue.  In this way, a book about the passing of one old woman becomes representative for the decline of an ancient language and culture...

The Life of Rebecca Jones is a fascinating book and a rather personal one for the writer.  Angharad Price is actually Rebecca Jones' grand-niece (and is mentioned once by name in the book), and the majority of what happens in the book is simply a factual account of her family history.  However, there's a twist in the tale, and her work is an example of Sebaldian intermingling of real life and imagination, family details and black-and-white photos twisted around a liberal dose of imagination and some elegant writing.

It's this writing, above all, which makes the book, and credit must go to Lloyd Jones, a writer himself, for his excellent work.  There's a successful mixture of simple prose and more descriptive writing, and the book never comes across as stilted or unnatural.  I enjoyed the challenge of the Welsh words and place names scattered throughout the text, but those who might be a little more daunted by this are catered for too.  There's a guide to pronunciation at the back, and you'll soon be racing through phrases like Cwm Maesglasau without missing a beat ;)

In short, this is a beautiful tale of rural life and a search for tranquillity in an ever-busier world.  It's not an easy thing to seek out, a fact Rebecca acknowledges:
"From the moment of conception until the moment of death, tranquillity is within and without us.  But in the tumult of life it is not easily felt.  It shies away from our inflamed senses and all physical excitement; it recoils from our birth cries, from the rush of light to the eye, and from the fond indulgence of our loved ones, salty tears and sweet kisses, our earth-bound corruption and putrescence, the ghastly grunt of death...
 When our senses are spent we seek tranquillity again.  And as we age, our search for it becomes more passionate, though never easier." (pp.9/10)
If you're in need of some, though, you could do worse than try reading Price's (and Rebecca's) story, an island of calm in the hurried rush of life.  It's definitely a read for those in search of a little tranquillity of their own :)