Monday, 26 September 2011

It's Raining Fish, Halleluja! And Other Magical Songs

Fflur Dafydd writes in the current issue of New Welsh Review about the genesis of her second English novel, The White Trail, published on 18 October. An update of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, this latest addition to Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series is a triumph. A feminist interpretation, its theme is the need for independence from loved ones, even though the failure of her story’s catalyst to cherish her own husband and unborn baby ends in tragedy. ‘The white trail’ of the title is Dafydd’s translation of ‘Olwen’, a girl in whose wake white flowers spring. The original symbolism of this motif is transformed from that of passive female allure a trail of petals into a bank of stubborn plants that won’t be picked. Take two heavily-pregnant female foils: Goleuddydd (feisty fireball, capricious) and Olwen (more your traditional docile model), add a third, calm, competent (past post-partum!) Gwelw, and we have a tableau of female types which sends up the Medieval stories’ questing for the perfect wife.

This Malcom Pryce-alike mash-up of detective story with magic and mayhem is a winning combo. The nascent political subplot is curtailed by the novella format so that we start to learn of Health Ministry mess-ups but soon cut back to frenzied action involving pigsty births, abductions, rape and suicide. The White Trail sees a return to Fflur’s parody of the crime thriller which she first explored in the Daniel Owen prize-winning Y Llyfrgell. But since this author is so clearly interested in public affairs, a broader satire of Assembly doings is sure to follow.

There’s more magic in the magazine’s winter issue, now in production. Transvestite magician Chiqui is the inspiration of Christien Gholson’s debut A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind and the novel’s design features on our cover as well as in Reviews. Si├ón Melangell warns that the plot isn’t easy to follow. But I found Gholson’s distinctive mix of eighties’ industrial smalltown Belgian life and folktale less puzzling than intriguing, once I went with the flow. Why had the dance troupe ‘got naked at the Vatican’ and who is waxing Biblical about bells, crows, and fish rained down from the heavens? With its chapter sections dedicated to roles (The Seer, The Player etc), this novel reminded me of the fiction of Jenny Erpenbeck, the subject of Patricia Duncker’s essay in the current magazine. Patricia gently accuses Michel Faber (author of The Crimson Petal and the White) of exaggerating Erpenbeck’s originality. We need character and plot in fiction more than Modernist archetypes and mystery, she suggests. I would counter that we need all four at different times, depending on our fancy. After all, as proves, you can never have too much magic.

A version of this was first published in the Western Mail on Saturday 24 September in Gwen's Insider books column.

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Next week's blog: New Critics Day and Seren at Thirty

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