A nation with two literary languages but one soul that speaks passionately through its writers - here is the guide to the modern literary scene covering circa 100 works that sum up the currents and corners of Welsh life from the 1920s to the present. This little book puts the lot at your fingertips.

Contributions by Ray Keenoy, Rhian Reynolds and Sioned Rowlands

Guide

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Outside the House of Baal

Humphreys, Emyr

A Man’s Estate

Outside the House of Baal, a book from the mid-1960s, is considered one of the most canonical of modern Welsh novels. It tackles thorny problems of Welsh identity in the twentieth century and beyond, including the effects of the dissolution of the ‘niche civilisation’ of Welsh-speaking Nonconformism, seen for example in the dialogue between the book’s main protagonist, philosophically troubled preacher J.T. Miles, and his son Ronnie who is, tellingly, a sociologist rather than a man of the cloth.

To his father’s chagrin Ronnie speaks of a ‘dead-wood’ tradition while a new pub, the so-called (by J.T.) ‘House of Baal’ now abuts onto his garden. The preacher understands temperance as something firmly Welsh, in contradistinction to th..READ MORE

A White Afternoon

Stephens, Meic ed.

 (Additional review on this important collection)

The collection’s title story by Sonia Edwards is as intense and artistic as one would expect from this exceptional author, relating a girl’s view of her mother’s (second) wedding day, probably not such an unusual mixed-feelings sort of experience these days. Similarly ‘Linda’s Story’ by Aled Islwyn cleverly explores some less-travelled aspects of married life, in this case a woman discovering her husband is gay or bisexual. The focus is on the domestic again in ‘Mothers’ by Meleri Roberts, a short, sharp shock of a piece that ought to be further anthologised for its perfectly artful dive from the sentimental to the bleak. Aled Lewis Evans’ ‘Dean and Debs’ are a couple of happy Chavs living on ‘the Wern estate’. Dear old Debs is only eighteen and about to have her first child. Will Dean stick around? Read here to find out… Martin Davis’ ‘Water’ is a graphic, powerfully written story of civilians inside a civil war, perhaps the Yugoslav one but in any cas..READ MORE

Classic Welsh Short Stories

Jones, Gwyn and Elis, Islwyn Ffowc eds.

Classic Welsh Short Stories is a collection of twenty–five stories from the twentieth century and includes fifteen stories originally written in English and ten translated from Welsh. There is a striking vitality to these stories, which offer a good insight into Welsh culture and the breadth of its literature.

Traditionally the Welsh story is seen as a tale about the exploits of some colourful character living in an agricultural or mining community. In this vein Rhys Davies’ entertaining ‘Canute’ describes the events when a group of men leave a south Wales valley for London, off to see the England vs. Wales rugby international: ‘You had the impression that the place would be denuded of its entire male population, as in some archaic war. . .  In black mining valleys, on rustic heights, in market towns and calm villages, myriads of house doors opened during the course of the night and a man issued from an oblong of yellow light, a railway ticket replacing the old spear’. Davies has affectionately set up the men for s..READ MORE

Corner People

Jones, Harri Pritchard

Corner People is a collection of thirteen stories by this doctor, translator and Welsh-language novelist, short-story and script-writer. ‘Exit’ is the reminiscence of a (rather banal) theatrical career, ‘Venturing Forth’ the account of a schoolmistress who has dedicated herself to marking and her ‘tada’ (‘dad’) — a firm chapel man: ‘With tada I could idolise him, love him body and soul, without there being any lust involved’.

‘Matinee’ is clever and intriguing; an ageing actress is called to witness her experiences with a (deceased) great poet whose biography has been commissioned. She aims to have the pleasure of ‘writing’ a bit of personal and poetic history all to suit herself and this will be her greatest performance. In fact the poet was ‘a creature set apart’, definitely not one of the gang and his relationship with the actress was not so wonderful for her. This is a short but very clever essay on reminiscence versus reality (‘falsified memory syndrome’ anybody?) but intensely sympathetic – as is ‘Venturing Forth’ to i..READ MORE

In and Out of the Goldsh Bowl

Trezise, Rachel

In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is a vision of the Rhondda Valley in the 1990s, as witnessed and experienced by a teenage girl, Rebecca Trigianni. An account of life in one of the most deprived communities of Western Europe, where the mines have closed, but life remains as dark as the pits and the humour as black as the coal. A place where marginally employed adults drink and fight until they pass out, and where their children look for escape in alcohol, class B drugs, crime and underage sex.



The novel is a confessional memoir of youth, but Rebecca’s memories of family life serve as a metaphor for the experience of south Wales’ post-industrial communities. Among the episodes of a childhood, Trezise weaves sociological facts of the period, recounting how in 1985 in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike, unemployment in the Rhondda Valley stood as high as sixty-five percent; for her family however, this was a good time as both her mother and stepfather remained employed. Rebecca’s contented home life i..READ MORE

The Dust Diaries

Sheers, Owen

The Dust Diaries is the ambitious and accomplished first novel of poet Owen Sheers. It is a multi-faceted work on the life of the Reverend Arthur Shearly Cripps — at once a novel, a biography, a memoir, a travelogue, an account of social history, war and imperialism and a love story. Sheers describes Dust Diaries as ‘the story of Arthur Cripps’ life reflected through my imagination’ but it is based on extensive research into the life and surroundings of this socially aware missionary to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

The book is constructed from intricately layered narratives — the novel spans the twentieth century as author Owen Sheers’ experiences of contemporary Zimbabwe are interspersed with accounts of Cripps’ last days, memories of his time in Africa as well as of the life he left behind in Britain. Cripps’ ..READ MORE

White Star [Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn]

Llywelyn, Robin

White Star is a political allegory set in the future. The Welsh title (which translates as ‘White Star on a White Background’) is an allusion to the flag — ironic  and apolitical — adopted by the embryonic state of Llawr Gwlad (‘Lowland’) as it emerges from a period of occupation and cultural humiliation.

In the book, the alien forces of the great Gwlad Alltud (‘Land of Exile’) see their supremacy challenged by an alliance of the lesser provinces. These include Tir Bach (‘Little Land’), Haf heb Haul (‘Sunless Summer’), Gaeaf Mawr (‘Great Winter’), names which reflect the geopolitical climate of the age.

Both the provinces and Robin Llywelyn’s novel are peopled with exotic and often diabolical characters. Tir Bach is ruled by the amorphous Llwch Dan Draed (‘Dust Under Foot’), a typically Llywelynesq..READ MORE

Return to Lleior [Yn Ôl I Leior]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

The central if not always most convincing character of Return to Lleifior (which is the sequel to Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman] also reviewed here) is the bloody-minded Harri Vaughan, a figure who sums up the concerns of the 1930s generation in Wales. His response to many things is primarily ideological: the Communism of his youth is reduced to doctrinaire Socialism as he approaches his 30s, and his ‘punishment’ for this is to end up on his knees sobbing for Jesus in the book’s somewhat unlikely finale.

Despite the weight in the book of the cardboard-like figure of Harri, who is portrayed as a reformed Toff taken up with the cause of the working man, ..READ MORE

William Jones [William Jones]

Hughes, T.Rowland

This novel was written in Welsh and is largely set in south Wales. A humorous work, it recounts the story of a north-Walian slate-splitter or quarryman who decides to escape a domestic situation quite devoid of bliss — his wife Liza is a caricature ‘bad wife’ who dishes up tinned food and spends his money hanging out in the cinema with Ronald Coleman, Gary Cooper et al.

Amidst the Punch-and-Judy of an awful marriage is a fascinating description of the small world of north Wales in the 1930s. Small world seems to translate as ‘small-minded’ as doughty William Jones explores the naughty world of south Wales, shown as having quite different mores. In fact the south seems gay and libertine t..READ MORE

Pestilence [Y Pla]

Roberts, Wiliam Owen

Wiliam Owen Roberts’ Pestilence is a work whose vision and depth has rarely been equalled in modern Welsh writing. A historical novel set in the mid-fourteenth century, it is a study in the instigation of change, the forces which cause change, and ways in which people and society react and adapt to change. The context for this study is, on the one hand, feudal Wales, and, on the other, a Europe prey to the Black Death, ruled by insouciant monarchs, and animated by apocalyptic religious zeal.

The reader is invited to explore the lives of Welsh serf and lord, sheriff, soldier and clergyman in the time after Edward II’s conquest of the country, and the demise of the indigenous Welsh princes and their authority.

The context is of disenfranchisement and a polit..READ MORE

Mr Schnitzel

Knight, Stephen

Winner of the Arts Council of Wales ‘Book of the Year Award’ in 2001, Mr Schnitzel evades categorisation: it’s a novel, a book of fables, a memoir, even a travelogue. Despite this ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary format, it has an impressive coherence and gravitas.

Night after night, while Stefan and his family are visiting his mother’s aunt in Austria, his father (the eponymous Mr Schnitzel — ‘an honorary title’ bestowed on account of his fondness for that particular dish) tells him fairytales about the Austrian Navy: ‘Stories for a five-year-old unsettled by sleeping in a strange bed in a strange country’. Among the characters Stefan is introduced to are Elfrieda the heartbroken pirate, bent on revenging her husband’s murder; compulsive potholer Thomas von Gammon and his doomed exploration of Europe’s subterranean canals; and Count Otto von Otto, First Admiral of the Austrian Fleet and ‘an excellent swimmer’, dispatched to sc..READ MORE

Glass Shot

Bush, Duncan

Glass Shot is the unalloyed and unrelieved portrait of a sociopath, a man who, while apparently conforming to social norms in his lifestyle and appearance, lacks the crucial inner behavioural regulator of empathy for others.

As Bush drags us into the mind of this self-centred and ignorant man whose



family ties and social pride have been severed by marriage breakdown — his wife, much to his disgust, has left him for a teacher, the better to indulge middle-class cottagey-décor and Volvo-driving aspirations — we begin to feel bullied by this angry and threatening pub-bore type. His chronic anxiety and existential misery fester in the bleak universe constituted by the tyre-fitters’ where he works, his porno consumption, sex fantasies, ideas of revenge and gambling activities. His fantasy life in fact folds in and out of his consci..READ MORE

Brothers

Rubens, Bernice

My maternal grandfather, like one of Bernice Rubens’ grandfathers, grew up in the Tsar’s Russia and passed on three things from his life there: a gleaming brass samovar — the sine qua non of Russic domestic pride; my mother’s frankly rather broken Yiddish, faint echo of a thousand years of Jewish Europe and one single, short but deafening item from the word-horde of the mighty Russian language: pogrom.

If anyone doesn’t quite know what a pogrom was, then see Rubens’ evocation here — description would be too bland a term — on pages 111 to 123.

..READ MORE

A White Afternoon

Stephens, Meic ed.

A White Afternoon, published in 1998, is a collection of thirty short stories whose vibrancy and range reflect a period in which the short story enjoyed a new vogue. Angharad Jones’ ‘Dear Mr Atlas’ is typical of some of the stories, in that a small event in a person’s life takes on a greater magnitude and significance. When Elen trips in front of a builder who has whistled at her as she walks to work, he rushes to see if she is hurt. This moment lends colour to an otherwise drab life, and causes Elen to question the way she feels about her boyfriend, Gronw. That evening she notices how Gronw, a scholar, has shadows under his eyes: ‘the kind caused by thousands and thousands of academic paragraphs’. In contrast, the builder — less remote and more virile than her partner — is not repelled by the ‘undignified’ spectre of her blood seeping from the cut on her knee through her nylon tights.

‘One Lettuce Does Not a Salad Make’ is similar to Jones’ story in that a small event, such as a man’s reaction to a salad, can be symbolic of more important ..READ MORE

Feet in Chains [Traed Mewn Cyon]

Roberts, Kate

Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts is one of the most enduring Welsh-language novels of the twentieth century. In it, as in the entirety of her work, the author succeeds in capturing and committing to print the memory of a society destined to pass. Set in Roberts’ native Arfon, which was a practically monolingual Welsh-speaking community until after World War Two, Feet in Chains records some forty years of the daily struggle with penury of a young couple, Ifan and Jane Gruffydd. Theirs’ is the fight to rear a family on a modest quarry wage supplemented by subsistence farming. As with the other men-folk of the vicinity, Ifan’s days are punctuated by the ringing of the quarry bell, while wife Jane labours season in season out to bring light and joy to the homestead.

Education provides the key for the next generation to escape a ..READ MORE

Grits

Griffiths, Niall

Grits was Liverpool-born Niall Griffiths’ first novel and establishes the fictional world in which all his novels to date — Sheepshagger, Kelly and Victor, Stump and Wreckage — have been located. When first published, this tale of 1990s drug culture and social decay in a Welsh seaside resort (Grif..READ MORE

One Moonlit Night [Un Nos Ola Leuad]

Prichard, Caradog

One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a clear-cut, linear narrative, as it is based on seemingly jumbled-up memories which pour haphazardly onto its pages. Yet a strong framework is provided by the moonlit night of the title, as the protagonist is a grown-up man who has returned to his native village after a period of incarceration for murder. As he walks around the village one night various places evoke scenes from his childhood and adolescence, and gradually his story builds up. An aura of mysteriousness surrounds him: he is unnamed, fatherless, and obsessed with his mad mother who spent the last part of her life in an asylum. The main character himself seems deranged (and the title is suggestive of lunacy), so that we seem to be looking into a cracked mirror where the image is all awry.

Although the story is narrated by one character, the perspective changes from time to time, which is both unsettling and exciting. At times the style is an adolescent’s stream-of-consciousness, at others the voice of an adult narrator and yet again there are highly-charged, psalm-like, ..READ MORE

Sugar and Slate

Williams, Charlotte

Sugar and Slate contains many valuable lessons within its pages — and one of them is to be wary of labels. Labels like ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘British’, ‘Welsh’, ‘West Indian’, ‘African’, ‘immigrant’. Even such apparently indisputable, ‘factual’ labels as these are shown to be politically charged, loaded with assumptions and full of contradictions. Then there are other labels, widely used in the recent past but now seen as offensive: terms like ‘coloured’ and ‘half-caste’, words all too familiar to Charlotte Williams when she was growing up in Llandudno, a faded Victorian seaside resort on the north Wales coast. And then, of course, there are yet harsher labels… Though rarely the victim of such highly unpleasant taunts (the Llandudno of the 1950s and 1960s was, after all, a most polite and genteel town), Williams spent her formative years struggling to escape the labels society had burdened her with and, more insidiously, inculcated with the prevailing racist mentality, the labels she had given herself. One of five daughters of a black father from Guyana and a white ‘Cymraes’ (Welsh-speaking Welshwoman), perhaps the acceptable term to describe Williams nowadays would be ‘mixed-race’. Part memoir, part travelogue, part ..READ MORE

The Land as Viewed from the Sea

Collins, Richard

The Land as Viewed from the Sea is Richard Collins’ remarkable debut novel. It is an unconventional love story that pushes the limits of language and form to capture the complexity of memory and loss. Its prologue sets the background for the whole novel, invoking an expanse of grey-green sea constantly in flux. The waves journey onwards with previously felt forces, present momentum and the promise of future encounters. From this seemingly limitless fluidity the narrative shifts to an interior landscape to focus on a man and a woman arguing.

This stylised opening sequence could not be more in contrast to the earthy reality of rural life with which the story begins. Two men work companionably in the fields, one after an absence of some years. The latter, John, the ostensible ‘author’, is invigorated by the effect the natural environment has upon his senses; his awareness of physical reality has been dulled by his residence in the city and some of the novel’s most vivid and lyrical passages stem from his renewed receptivity to nature.

..READ MORE

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..READ MORE