“A fo ben, bid bont”/“If you want to be a leader, be a bridge” (Welsh proverb)

If only traditional Welsh wisdom would reach current leaders, who seem determined to build walls both literal and metaphorical rather than bridges at the moment… *sigh*

Politics aside, let’s get back to books, lovely books. This is my contribution to Dewithon 19, the Welsh readathon for March 2019, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter – do join in!

(Image from Book Jotter)

Firstly, Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928), who was born in Glamorgan in 1903. This was her only novel after she tragically died by suicide when she was 31, six years after its publication.

Arnold Nettle is a shy man and in frail health. He moves to a village where his family own the Post Office, to work there and recuperate.

“Every evening at six o’clock Arnold Nettle used to come home from the post-office and walk slowly along to his lodgings. The sun was setting and it would disappear behind the black feathery branches of the trees, leaving streaks of red in the grey sky. He went in and had his tea, and then he usually sat reading by the fire or practising a bit on his cello. Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seemed he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would blush and smile shyly to himself. At ten o’clock he would put his book and his cello back in their places and fasten the window and go to bed.”

So, a simple life conveyed in a simple style. I wasn’t sure about this style at first, whether it was deliberate to convey Arnold’s thought processes and deliberately quiet life, or whether it was the inexperience of the writer. It worked well for Arnold, and it did change slightly when the story focussed on other characters. Arnold is asked by a local family to play his cello for them; Olivia and Eleanor live with their aunt, Mrs Curle, and her son George. Arnold is very much taken with Olivia.

“Olivia smiled at him too and made him sit down, He still kept the gloves firmly in his hands, but he sat down smiling at them all and asked in a comparatively loud voice, ‘Where is your cat?’ and since this was the first quite independent remark he had ever made in that house, it almost gave the rather absurd impression that he had this evening come there especially to see the cat.”

The story follows these young people and also Mr Premiss, a self-focussed cad who is friends with George, and Pauline, Arnold’s landlady’s daughter. Very little happens so this is not the novel for you if you like a strong plot, but I thought it worked effectively in capturing people and a place at a moment in time, over the course of one winter.

Ultimately though I decided the naïve style was due to Dorothy Edwards’ inexperience as a writer. There are far too many occasions on which Olivia’s eyes are described as sad, her sister’s as blue. This description is not always out of place:

“Olivia looked about her with her large, rather childlike but sad eyes. Her happy mood had gone in some way; she did not feel so full of energy. There is something, too, rather unpleasant about winter; it is cold and frozen and nothing seems to move, and yet there is no sense of rest anywhere.”

Yet far too frequent. But what really stopped me loving this novel was a feeling of detachment from the characters. For me as a reader, I don’t need to like the characters but I do need to feel involved with them in some way. Again, this may have been a stylistic choice – Olivia seems depressed, Arnold is alienated, and so creating this feeling in the reader helps capture the feelings of the characters:

“At supper he was very careful to listen to the conversation and not to get lost in his own thoughts. But even then he listened, and even took part in it, almost as though he were dreaming it all. They sat around the table like stars, and when they spoke their voices seemed to come to him from far away”

I only write about books I would recommend, and I would recommend Winter Sonata, but with some reservations. I found it an interesting novel with some beautiful writing but also a bit unsatisfying. I’ve definitely not done it justice here and in capturing a quiet desperation within ordinary lives it is restrained and accomplished. What I am sure of is that Dorothy Edwards was a talented writer and may have just been finding her feet with this. I’d certainly like to read Rhapsody, her collection of short stories. Had she lived and carried on writing, I think she could have been really successful.

Secondly, Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004) who was born in Cardiff and based the main character of this novel, Winnie, on Nora Brindle, a woman who lived on the streets of Cardiff.

“There was a panicky sort of wind about, swirling everything up from the gutter and blowing dirt in your face. Eyes full of grit; with my case and the bin liner…I was wearing my silver coat with the plastic bag in the inside pocket, and the shoes I’d got from the Salvation Army the week before. I had my case with me. I always took my case.”

Winnie is homeless but shelters in an abandoned shop that she has some previous connection to, along with some young homeless boys. They move on and she is on her own when a young woman breaks in a steals her case. Her pursuit of her things leads Winnie to remember the past, and Azzopardi moves seamlessly back and forth across time.

Winnie has been considered odd since she was a child. Her mother seems to suffer from depression, although in the first half of the twentieth century it isn’t called that. All young Winnie knows is that her frail mother is wasting away in bed, and like Winnie, she communes with the dead.

“I avoided cracks in the pavement, I crossed my fingers and touched wood, and at night, I prayed. Despite everything, the ghosts took their fill. Each day a little more of my mother was stolen. In no time at all, her eyes went hard as jet; her hair, brittle as spun sugar.”

We follow Winnie through her life: evacuation during the war, bullying at school, falling in love. She lives with her grandfather after her mother dies and her father tries to keep Winnie’s memories of her alive:

 “A handkerchief, a ribbon, a heart-shaped locket sprinkled with rust; these are objects, artefacts, proof of life. I balance his memories, all the same, storing them on top of mine, carefully leaning one against the other like a stack of playing cards. I am building a tower without bells. Later I will bring it all down, in an earthquake of my own.”

What we witness is that time and again Winnie is used by people. Azzopardi shows with a deft touch how society will judge Winnie – homeless, unloved, likely mentally ill – harshly, although she has never been vindictive or deliberately tried to hurt anyone. Meanwhile those who use her – usually male, employed, solvent – get away with it.

Remember Me isn’t remotely sentimental and Winnie never asks for pity. She is an unreliable narrator, but then everyone would be an unreliable narrator of their own life – how can it possibly be seen with any objectivity?

“Who cares about an old woman and a few bits of tat? No one, that’s who, no one on the world.”

Winnie’s life is hard, and unfair, and yet her resilience and a message of hope endures to the very end.

Following Winnie’s lead, here is a memory of my own: when I was a student in the 90s, there was the Cool Cymru music explosion, with the chart success of bands like Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, and The Stereophonics amongst many others. When Catatonia appeared on Top of the Pops to perform Mulder and Scully in 1998, I think it was the first time I’d heard an English-language pop song sung in a Welsh accent (I’m not counting Bonnie Tyler because I think she didn’t mean for her accent to slip through), much to the pleasure of my Welsh housemate at the time. Here is their lead singer Cerys Matthews performing a traditional Welsh folk song: