The Life of Rebecca Jones – Angharad Price
MacLehose Press, 19 April 2012
Review copy from the publisher
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The Life of Rebecca Jones is translated from the Welsh O! Tyn y Gorschudd by Lloyd Jones. I mention this because both titles cover the content of this 159 page novel rather well.
On one level, this is the story of the life of Rebecca Jones, as well as the story of her family’s life in the Maesglasau valley during the twentieth century. Rebecca is one of many children. Three of her siblings are affected by genetic blindness, and all the money of the family goes to the education of these three brothers. Rebecca and her oldest brother stay home to maintain the family farm, trying to keep up with the changes wrought by modernity.
Rebecca’s reflections on her family’s life during the century are written in simple, straightforward prose. She outlines the general developments in the family, without making it impersonal. There are ponderings on certain important events, as well as glimpses of Rebecca’s own thoughts and opportunities in life. For example when she mentions travel through literature as the only option of an unmarried maid:
All I had was a lift to the Dolgellau every Friday afternoon in Olwen’s Morris Marina. But in Dolgellau there was a library, and it was there that I started to travel through books – and my imagination.
I pored over a world atlas by the light of a paraffin lamp. But I knew already where I’d go. I had a long-standing wish to visit Europe’s great cities.
I kept my own imaginary travelogue: my impressions, the names of places and people, dates and contacts which did not really exist.
Who would have thought that the whole world could be seen from Maesglasau?
The straightforward narrative is interspersed with more poetic passages, that receive their own chapters. In these passages, the landscape, the tradition way of life, the language, and Rebecca’s personal life all come together, enabling the reader to read Rebecca’s story not just as the story of an individual and her family, but also as the story of the valley, a community, and the push and pull between tradition and modernity. It is here that I would place the Welsh title O! Tyn y Gorschudd, “O! pull aside the veil”. According to Jane Aaron in the introduction, this title “seems to refer not only to the physical blindness of the narrator’s brothers but also to the psychological blindness of those who remain unaware of the value of their linguistic culture and its peril.” The title O! Tyn y Gorschudd comes from the title of a poem by Hugh Jones. Jones plays a large part in this novel, as each chapter is headed by a fragment of his writing. For Rebecca, the words from Jones’ poem “resonate with such sadness in my family home.” For me, Jones features as the exemplary of the importance of literature and poetry in Rebecca’s life, a framework of understanding and meaning making, constantly expressed in the narrative of her family’s life.
All of these strands: poetry, language, culture, nature, and the life of Rebecca Jones, pull together in the final chapter of the novel. This last chapter is amazing. And I would love to quote it as a whole. It casts the story in a new light, suggesting different manners of reading the story, which made me want to leaf back and reread.
There is something quiet, gentle, and reflective about The Life of Rebecca Jones, which I loved. Throughout the novel I was impressed by Angharad Price’s skill. There are many layers in this short novel, and even if you choose to read it simply as the story of an individual, it has the quality, like Sahlberg’s The Brothers, of telling a saga in just a few pages. Nevertheless, it was not until the final pages that I was moved to feel for Rebecca, as some of the glimpses of her personality remain a little on the surface. This does not take away from the quality of the story, as I am convinced that this is a great novel, but it did reduce my personal involvement in it.
I realise that I talk about Rebecca Jones and her family as if they are real living creatures and not just fictional characters. This is because they were relations of Angharad Price, so in a way it is fictionalised family history. This is what adds another layer of enjoyment to the novel. It is a beautifully produced volume. I really like the picture on the cover, which is called “The Convalescent” by Gwen John, but more than that the book features pictures of the family and the valley, which gives the story an even more real feel.
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