Here is quite possibly the most obscure reference that I’ve possibly come up with, whilst reading “The Life of Rebecca Jones” I couldn’t help but think of “The Deposition of Father McGreevy” by Brian O’Doherty, a shortlisted Man Booker Prize novel from 2000. Why? I really have no idea? One is set in a rural Irish community, with no females remaining in the community, the other a female tale in Welsh? Funny how the human mind works.
“The Life of Rebecca Jones” is translated from the Welsh, and like some other bloggers I didn’t think I’d see the day where I’d be reviewing a novel that had been translated from that language. Here we have, what could be described as, a simple rural tale, Rebecca Jones telling her story of growing up in Tynybraich, on the road to Cwm Maesglasau. This is a celebration of what it is to be Welsh. The language, the poetry, the isolation of the village, the rural lifestyle and of course the scenery. Our day to day activities are intertwined with stories of streams, our lives the metaphor?
This is a simple story, told in simple language
The year 1905 was a year of death in the annals of the world. Czar Nicholas II slaughtered five thousand in the city of St Petersburg. Then thousand were killed in an Indian earthquake. Two hundred thousand Russians were killed by Togo’s Japanese navy. Sailors on the Russian ship Potemkin killed their own officers. Jews were killed by the Russians of Odessa. And in Wales, nearly a hundred-and-twenty miners died in a pit explosion in Rhondda Fach.
But for Rebecca and Evan Jones, Tynybraich, the birth of their first child was enough to counter all that death: an armful of flesh and a thatch of black hair. I was named Rebecca after my mother and grandmother. Tradition had a hold on me from the moment I was born.
Catrin Jones, my grandmother, never came for the birth, not for some weeks later. She eventually came to bestow her curt blessing and declared me “bonny like my father”. These were hard times for Mother. But Aunt Sarah lent her support, both at my birth and afterwards. Father only too glad to make his excuses and escape to the fields. Sarah continued to help with the housework and with bringing up “little Beca”. And when my brther, Robert, was born in August 1906 she came to us every day, despite her mother’s reproaches.
I have only a child’s memory of Aunt Sarah. I remember her as a tall and handsome woman, serious and quiet, unlike her more mischievous brother. I remember how my mother’s face would light up with a smile as she greeted her every morning; a smile of thankfulness; a sister’s smile.
Sarah died in 1910, a young woman of thirty-four years, a year after the death of her own mother. What has stayed with me most is an impression of quiet gravity. Or maybe that impression comes from the short poem – an englyn – composed in her memory, which is carved into her gravestone on the hillside at Dinas Mawddwy:
Early was Sara silenced – tranquil, serious,
She fell quiet ere the crowd’s applause;
But the spell cast by her life’s goodness
Radiated over her cold resting place.
Rebecca has three brothers who are blind, two born that way, one who loses his sight.
His favourite pastime was seeing through the eyes of others. He loved listening to visual descriptions: evocations of landscapes, the description of a face, or a painting. Using a memory of colour he’d imagine the sights for himself.
I remember well sitting by his side one day at Tynybraich, and he said to me: “Tell me what you can see.”
Unthinkingly, I looked around and said “nothing”. I immediately realised my error and hastened to describe the scene around me.
The language may be simple but the tale is not. Just stop and dwell on that section for a moment, such awareness. The story here seems simple, the day to day existence of Rebecca in the Welsh valley with her parents and siblings, but the depth and complexity is astounding. We have the tale of a blind painter, the relationship between the visual and your own personal interaction with the world. This then seamlessly slips into a section about the beauty and the flowers of the valley. The visual and the natural blending again.
You could look at this novel as a celebration of a lost era. The simple activity of harvest time and hay baling becomes:
Getting the hay into the barn was a great relief, guaranteeing food for the animals for the long winter. This sense of relief belongs to the past. We no longer experience it with the arrival of the big-bales’ polythene shrouds.
A story that also laments the loss of a language through the loss of traditional ways of farming and the youth moving to cities. The valley becoming filled with English speaking city people wanting to purchase a weekend “view”.
Our story is also laced with metaphor, for example the family being described as an anchor, holding us secure in a storm, holding us back in fair weather. The comparison of life to nature, the trickling of the streams, the passing of the seasons, the meandering of 100 years of Rebecca’s life. This is presented by prose from Hugh Jones “The tips of the trees wear white lace and the eaves hold sharp swords. Everything endeavours to hide its head under whatever guard it can find, to save itself from the tempests and icy frost which seek to obliterate it.” Winter = the passing of a life.
An interesting book which reads easily and pleasantly, however one that contains many layers and levels and one that celebrates (through the lamentations) being Welsh, the country, the way of living, the language and more.