Trapped indoors between heavy rain sluicing down the mountain and mist swirling up from the valley floor, I turned to my book. I’d brought a big fat one, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. It’s a minute detailing of Irish-American family life, practically in real time, but even that wasn’t long enough to last out the rain. Aghast at being bookless I had a hunt along my host’s shelves, and a thin paperback fell into my hand. The Life of Rebecca Jones, by Angharad Price.
My host is Welsh, like me. I was interested to discover a novel translated from Welsh and I glanced at the back cover. ‘Price’s book can claim a place on the shelf beside Berger, Sebald and Ondaatje. Widely hailed as the first Welsh classic of the 21st century’.
I started reading.
Oh my goodness. What a discovery.
I finished it at a sitting, as they say. It was like falling down the rabbit hole, tumbling into a place and time long gone, but which I once knew well. The book is a work of poetry and social history as well as fiction, spare and quaint and stoical, and at the same time wildly romantic. As sonorous as a chapel organ, it’s the story of a farming family scraping a living off the mountainside in a harsh and lovely place. I sat in village school with children like those described here, and went to play in their farmyards and hay barns. There was tea in the farm kitchen, bread and butter before bara brith, and always a plain-faced clock ticking on the shelf above the range. The book tells of sheep shearing and haymaking and Sunday chapel, temperance and black Bibles and the births of children, early deaths and family agonies and the circuits of memory.
After I closed it I sat thinking and looking out at another view, a different place but in its way as sharp and particular as rural mid-Wales. I was pondering on families, and the way memories shift in the mind’s mist. Tomorrow I fly home to check the proofs of Daughter of the House, and after that begin over again.