The top 10 books of rural Wales

From Alan Garner to RS Thomas, Bruce Chatwin to Dylan Thomas, the mythic power of place in these works casts a potent spell
Llangattock escarpment in the Brecon Beacons
Myth that sticks in the treads of boots … Llangattock escarpment in the Brecon Beacons. Photograph: Helen Dixon/Alamy
Myth that sticks in the treads of boots … Llangattock escarpment in the Brecon Beacons. Photograph: Helen Dixon/Alamy
Cynan Jones

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 09.37 EST

I’ve chosen these books because they go some way towards delivering a more comprehensive picture of rural Wales than is often presented. They are jigsaw pieces in a map.

Wales’s physical landscape changes dramatically region by region. The Beacons differ from Snowdonia differ from the Cambrian Mountains differ from the Preselis. There are isolated hill farms, wealthy border farms, small patchwork farms – all within relatively close distance. But the individuality of each place and the characters who live in them is strong. Landscape, then, is a strong if not main protagonist in the books below. But there’s a thing that seems to seep time and again into those landscapes: myth. Myth that sticks in the treads of boots and gets walked all through these stories …

1. The Owl Service by Alan Garner

“Wherever you go you can think of that noise, and you know what you hear in your head is in the valley at the same moment. It never stops. It never has stopped since it began.”

I first read The Owl Service when I was a child. At the time it wasn’t the setting that struck me - I was used to that. I was also used to the feeling of some ancient, or more accurately “always present” otherness in that setting: something Garner pitches perfectly in this extraordinary story inspired by the Blodeuwedd myth from the Mabinogion. Garner’s physical descriptions are beautiful and accurate in their ability to unnerve or mesmerise, while the tension between the visiting English owners of the old farm and the Welsh staff who belong there highlights the tension that has long been and always will be between incomers and indigenous folk.

2. Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis (trans Gwen Davies)

One of the best portrayals of indigenous folk can be found in Caryl Lewis’s story of two brothers and a sister bound to the farm they’ve inherited by love, fear and secrets. The writing comes alive in its small details and descriptions. The English translation can’t always catch Lewis’s ear for Welsh, but few books deliver a more authentic picture of rural Wales. Bakelite switches, low doorframes, water sloshing through uneven slabs. You can scribble these details in a notebook on a visit, but you can only write them truly if you’ve grown up with them, as Lewis did.

3. Running for the Hills by Horatio Clare

Clare could have grown up in a very different world, had his parents not made a leap of faith in the 1960s and bought an isolated sheep farm “nestled” on a Welsh mountainside. Clare’s account grows wider than a simple retelling of the trials of farming into something more akin to an adventure tale. The effect of the landscape and setting on a young child’s mind is gently layered under a fair, human and honest story that many shared, give or take the finer details, when a considerable number of people came to rural Wales from other walks of life in the 1960s and 70s.

4. Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

Some of those who came were farther “out there” than others (as in Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo), and no list would be complete without them. These incomers were very different from the landed class of The Owl Service, or the “new money” in Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger – they were drawn by the “vibe” they felt in the landscape. In Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon, idealist Don (family in tow) goes about setting up a commune on a quiet secluded farmstead in the Welsh hills, a haven from the doomed world. Twenty years later, with the experiment and the farm physically and philosophically disintegrating around him, Don makes one last attempt to save things. All he needs is a massive speaker system …

5. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

It’s a different kind of weirdness that makes a person not want to travel even a few miles from their home. While so much of Chatwin’s work is driven by his fascination with nomads and wanderers, this beautifully weighted story of identical twin brothers who live their lives out on the family farm seems to address those themes by examining their opposite. This is a story about people who really don’t want to go anywhere. (Or do they?) While the 20th century seeps in around them, Benjamin and Lewis struggle with the double-edged sword of inheritance in a story lonely and rich and human and hard. Every time I think of the events towards the ending I get goosebumps again.

6. Collected Poems 1945-1990 by RS Thomas

It could be argued that fear is the driver behind not wanting to leave a place, and there is a degree of that in some of RS Thomas’s work. Published to mark the poet’s 80th birthday, this collection is invaluable to any proper understanding of the Welsh rural psyche. Religion, an unnerving sense of fate, incurable belonging, and – where he verges on nationalism – a fear that roots will be torn out and thrown away.

Like Caradoc Evans, Thomas’s work often portrays an archetypal people: pitiful and harsh, and riddled with Christian guilt. However, there is more sad affection in Thomas’s work than in Evans’s. He is more epic, more haunted, and more saved.

7. Tree of Crows by Lewis Davies

In this Ballardian myth, shot through with the ancient epic under-beat of Welsh myth and again laden with characters who are haunted by more than their eyes can see, Davies paints a near-future which harks back to Frontier times, medieval marketplaces and prehistoric rage. An Orwellian news bureau marshals the truth. A figment of the imagination tears sheep apart. A blind man hunts for crystals in the rock. And towering over all of it, the High Vans – the bleak, immovable landscape of the mountains.

8. Runt by Niall Griffiths

Speaking of bleak, immovable landscapes, you get the sense that when Niall Griffiths travelled to Wales from Liverpool as a kid his eyes went wide at the sight of that landscape and haven’t recovered since. Runt resembles that landscape in its uncompromising contrasts. Bleakness and richness; hardness and beauty; tragedy and revelation. It’s a lot to contain in the body of the story’s narrator, a 16-year-old boy who is the “unwitting repository of folk memory from the margins, barely educated but possessed of extraordinary insights”. As with Sheepshagger (another must-read rural novel) Griffiths invents a language for and of itself to tell this brutal, “humanfull” story of a backward savant child and his bereft, poetic drunken uncle.

9. Rebecca’s Daughters by Dylan Thomas

Poetic yes, and drunk or not, one of Thomas’s ambitions was to write a complete film scenario “ready for shooting, which would give the ordinary reader an absolute visual impression of the film in words and could be published as a new form of literature”. This prose-screenplay gives a brilliant rolling picture of an important time in Welsh history: the Rebecca Riots of the 1840s. The screenplay is rich with Thomas’s humour, wit and general buggering about. (“Blood all over the shop, like a choir outing.”) But there is also great humanity here: one of the strongest images, for me: troops marching through Pembroke en route to break the rioters and even the children quiet.

10. One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard (trans Philip Mitchell)

There’s both a quiet child, and a narrative witness akin to Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, in this extraordinary novel about an unnamed boy’s journey into grown-up-ness in an unnamed north Wales country town. First published in Welsh in 1961, it’s only recently available in full English translation and Philip Mitchell succeeds superbly in bringing Prichard’s vibrant prose to life. It’s strange and it’s melancholy, and again it’s about what lies (and what lies lie) under the surface. Perversion, insanity, domestic violence, drunkenness, religious cruelty; all alongside pastoral calm, choral singing and beautifully-baked bread. This is a tale haunted as much by normality as abnormality, presenting an extraordinary vision of rural Wales’s true complexity.

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