When is a memoir a novel?


9780857387127My dear friend Marian returned recently from her trip to London and France, and loaned me a little book she had bought in a bookshop in Chelsea: The Life of Rebecca Jones, by Angharad Price. Several things mark this as memoir/biography: first and foremost, Price is the great niece of Rebecca Jones, and as much as it is Rebecca’s life, told in her voice, it is the life of the Welsh family who live in  Maesglasau Valley in rural Wales, as their ancestors have done for 1,000 years. It is also the life of the valley itself, and of the stream which “begins her journey high on the crag above Maesglasau, rising from an underground seam up to the peaty uplands” and continues her silvery dance through the valley, transforming herself in many moods through the changing seasons.

It is also the life of the family, from the marriage of Rebecca’s parents and Rebecca’s birth in 1905  to her last days in her old age. It is classified as a novel, yet it is also a history of the Jones family, with photographs of family members and of the countryside. Several children are born to the farming couple, and not all survive. Of those who do, two boys are born blind, and one, Lewis, became blind by the age of six. He was to go away to a special school for the blind, like his brothers. He went missing, and was found by his family lying on a ledge above the house, face down among the bluebells. He had  been crying.

I lay by his side, asking what was wrong. He pressed the flowers against his eyes, inhaling their blue scent. He said that this was his last chance to see the bluebells. Next year he’d be at school, and his sight would go.

Rebecca and the oldest boy born to the family, Bob, continue to live on the farm. Bob wanted to be a doctor, but destiny and his father decreed he would carry on the family farm. Rebecca was  a seamstress, and had longings which were never fulfilled in reality; she wanted to travel, and made do by reading library books and imagining herself in the great cities of Europe and Scandinavia:

But it was in Rome that I lingered longest. I saw the cruel Coliseum and the beautiful square on the Capitoline Hill. I threw pennies into baroque fountains, and walked to the Vatican, submitting to the cold embrace of St Peter’s colonnades and placing my hand on St Peter’s foot. I would see the Popes’ tombs, before rushing back to daylight.

Rebecca’s imaginary travels are told so vividly, I found myself believing she had been there. Her other reality, the valley (cwm) is equally vividly evoked, and has a life of its own, interlaced with the life of the farm.

As winter loosened its grip we’d climb the mountain again, this time to drive the sheep down to the farm’s lowland meadows, so that they could be docked, washed, sheared and marked with pitch. We’d start our trek in the small hours, as the sky took on shades of blue, pink, yellow and white, and the night’s bruise was on the mend.

As much as this is a novel and a memoir, it is a love song to the valley and the way of life that it contained, and the family who inhabited it.

Yet, along with these lyrical passages, there are many prosaic ones, which jolted me at times out of the magical world created, and made me a little sceptical of all the rave responses to the novel, quoted in its fore and after pages, using words like ‘numinous’, ‘bardic’, ‘classic’, and more. Passages that tell the minutiae of daily life and the history of the family read more like memoir and less like a novel, and yet, I want to say, memoir does not have to be prosaic and mundane. For me, in my after-response when I closed the book, and quite often as I read it (short as it is) I felt detached and thought it could have been polished more. In the end I felt it is neither novel nor memoir, something in between. What marks it as novel is a twist which I will not reveal, and which, if you want to read and enjoy the book, you should veil your eyes from until you reach the brief epilogue.

What I enjoyed most in the book was the lyrical evocation of the Welsh countryside, seasons and way of life, and the rituals of farming, so close to my own childhood in a much harsher place in outback New South Wales.



Filed under memoir, truth and fiction

4 responses to “When is a memoir a novel?

  1. Christina. You summed it up beautifully. I hoped you would enjoy the ‘lyrical evocation of the countryside’. I agree some parts seemed prosaic and pedestrian. Perhaps it is less so in Welsh. Nevertheless I am glad to have ‘visited’ the valley.
    Thank you for this Christina.

  2. I’m glad we’re on the same page, Marian. I thought perhaps I had missed something that you found in it. And it is lovely to read a Welsh novel/memoir, a rare experience, and that you found the book and read it and wanted to share it with me!

  3. An enjoyable review, Christina. And I want to read the book, too. The very idea of Welsh makes me think of Dylan Thomas. Now I’ve mentally added ‘Under Milk wood” to my pile of to-read books. Thank you.

  4. Yes, it’s one I want to read again too. I love re-reading ‘classics’ and books that have been forgotten under the skyscrapers of modern publishing.

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