White Tree [Y Goeden Wen]

Edwards, Sonia

White Tree is the English translation of the Welsh-language text Y Goeden Wen, translated by the author herself, Sonia Edwards. This is a sophisticated, innovative work that came a close second in the coveted prose medal competition of the National Eisteddfod in 2002, of which the author is a previous winner. As is characteristic of prose works tailor-made for this competition, it is perhaps most aptly defined as a novella and could be read in a single sitting. Which is not to say that its effect is short-lived, for it is the kind of book that lingers long after turning the last page. Its brevity is a testament to the clarity and control of the writing, and it is a guaranteed light and sprightly read, even for the most reluctant.

The White Tree relates the story of Nen (an abbreviation of the name Elen, which in Welsh also connotes, rather appropriately in this context, the word ‘nef’ — heaven), a troubled young wife who goes missing at the beginning of the novel, and becomes the ghostly presence haunting the text throughout. Despite being the novel’s focus, Nen herself is voiceless, denied a narrative of her own — she is composed rather through the narratives of others, her overprotective best friend, Medi, her unfaithful yet doting husband Gari, along with several other loved ones, acquaintances and strangers, offering piecemeal impressions of a genial, generous and sensuous woman. The protagonist’s absence creates a curious eeriness that is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s melancholic, other-worldly atmosphere, and the devastating consequences of her disappearance on a whole host of different characters are subtly and masterfully revealed.

Nature itself here becomes a kind of voyeur, closely observing Nen as she spirals towards her destiny. Daybreak ‘with frost on its breath’, ‘the fragile June sun’, flowers and ‘shimmering moths’ all become key characters, urging the reader to follow an odd nature trail that holds the key to understanding the events leading up to Nen’s disappearance. Although these ‘natural’ excerpts seem slightly fanciful and indulgent in a body of otherwise succinct prose, it is worth persevering through the poetic flourishes in order to fully appreciate the significance of the ‘White Tree’ that gives this novel its title. At their best, these prose-poems are deft and resonant, and create a seductive undercurrent in the writing.

White Tree is a dexterous interweaving of narratives by a very capable writer, containing traces throughout of that subtle metrical otherness so often present in Welsh literature-in-translation. Abundant with musicality and rhythm, the lyricism is blunted only in part by graphic sexual detail that could have been

left to the imagination. For the most part, however, it is a narrative brimful of sensuous pathos that depicts loss and suffering as well as celebrating female sexuality and where Nen’s absence proves the most effective way of evoking the power of her presence. FfD


Recitation came naturally to her. And she was easy to teach. Didn’t sulk if I spoke sharply when she got it wrong. Which she seldom did. And she looked angelic on stage too. We did a fair bit of the eisteddfod circuit. What would she have been then? Eight? Nine, maybe. She won a good few prizes, a lot of them rsts. People loved her. My little angel. ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘this is our Elen. My brother’s daughter’. So proud of her, I was. As if she were my own child. That’s how much I loved her. She spent a lot of her time with me. She was one of four children and didn’t get too much attention at home. Not that I blame Ceinwen, mind. She had her work cut out with all of them, what with her sewing and everything. And I loved having Elen. She’d stay overnight often. And we’d have a whale of a time, midnight feasts of chocolate biscuits and the like! The house seemed to wake up when she was in it. Such a little scrap lling such a big place. Such an empty place. . . . She lled a void deep inside me. 33