As a confirmed Llwyd Owen addict, I was gagging for this latest offering, Un Ddinas Dau Fyd. His fifth Welsh language novel in as many years, this fast-paced thriller revolves around Emlyn, the middle class boss of a TV company, and Rod, who works in the Spar on Ely’s oxymoronically-named Grand Avenue. Both are literally in shit street: Rod is desperate to get away from his chronically alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother, who is under police surveillance. Rod’s only hope for salvation is his obsession with his video camera: he secretly films all aspects of Ely’s rich cultural heritage – especially the vicious gang fights between the Ely Boyz and the Caerau Crew. But with no way to edit his material, he repeatedly applies for jobs with TV companies in Cardiff. But his face doesn’t fit, and he gets nowhere fast.
Meanwhile in the putrid underbelly of middle-class Llandaf suburbia, Emlyn’s wife is up the duff while he’s trying to wriggle out of an affair with Beca, a psychotic self-harming nymphomaniac who is inconveniently married to Steffan Grey, the S4C drama boss whom Emlyn has to brown-nose to get any work. To confound things, Beca tells Emlyn that she’s carrying his baby. Awkwardly, Emlyn’s spectacularly naff new film needs the thumbs-up from Steffan before it can be aired.
By some curious twists of fate, shadowy double-dealing, and blackmail – not to mention the odd burst of violence – Rod and Emlyn’s paths cross, conspiring eventually to lift both out of their respective hells – and in Rod’s case, into some particularly steamy sexual encounters with a pretty young lady from Ceredigion.
Set against Owen’s trademark Kaaaardiff-Caerdydd backdrop, readers will delight in finding themselves immersed once again in an edgy world of Welsh middle class hypocrisy, working-class squalor, heroin, soapbar and cider. A heady mix of 21st century urban ingredients, it vividly brings to life a Cardiff that the city fathers would prefer to brush under the Cardiff Bay Barrage.
Shrewdly-observed, Owen writes with sympathy for the underdog: underpinning the main plot, there is a subtle social commentary, sometimes satirical, sometimes poignant. He has a clear understanding of the frustration faced by the underprivileged, and also of the self-righteous arrogance of those who believe that Wales belongs exclusively to the Welsh-speaker.
The relaxed familiarity with which Owen describes Cardiff suggests that he knows the city – warts and all – like the back of his hand. He portrays Kaaaadiff’s working-class nouveau-Welsh-speakers with ease, and the action shifts effortlessly between that world and the parallel world of Welsh language television, its self-important minor intrigues (which could have been culled straight out of the pages of Lol, the Welsh-language equivalent of Private Eye) emphasising its irrelevance to the bleak lives of some Ely residents.
Owen’s sparse style is easy to miss – it never gets in the way, the narrative moving hard and fast. He wastes little time on description, trusting the reader to use their imagination and make the reading experience more personal. Occasionally he does get carried away though, and uses rather obscure words – what the hell is ‘cywestach’, ‘dychlamu’, ‘cafl-ledu’ and ‘ceuled’? Owen apparently likes to learn new words daily in his other life as a translator and has a dictionary to hand, but few of his readers will bother to consult their University of Wales Dictionary app as they get swept along by the action.
I must confess that I didn’t understand the ending – I found myself leafing through the end, looking for missing pages. But the publisher assures me that there is nothing missing. Owen is known to make cross-references to events and characters in his previous novels, so maybe that’s what’s going on here. I have read all his novels, but can’t recall their contents sufficiently to make a connection. Nevertheless, I wasn’t that bothered, and I could happily read Un Ddinas Dau Fyd again, so much did I enjoy living on the edge in Llwyd Owen’s Cardiff.