Mari Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, is set in a quiet Welsh village just after the First World War. Davey has recently returned from the trenches. One morning his wife, Non, finds him crouched under the kitchen table holding an imaginary rifle in a waking dream. The same the next morning, and the next. Davey is not the husband Non married. He’s quiet, he doesn’t laugh anymore. He’s admitted that he was unfaithful while abroad and cannot be her husband as he once was. They sleep in the same bed, but separate. She wants her husband back.
Non also has to cope with a demanding, gossipy neighbour, an adopted son, Ossian, who does not speak and screams when touched, a dragon bitch mother-in-law from hell, and a heart condition that causes her to feel death is constantly at her shoulder. Did I mention she has a special gift which enables her to see people’s physical illnesses? That she’s a herb-gathering witch-healer and an ex-abortionist? She’s got a lot going on, has Non.
The story sees Non trying to find a way to help her husband recover his mind. She travels to London, visits pawn shops, clairvoyants, hospitals full of sick men. In doing so she inadvertently finds out some life changing truths about herself. These little revelations and the lead up to them are quite compelling, so much so that this book might have Mystery added on to the end of Family Drama/Historical Fiction/Romance/Supernatural.
Basically Non is on a journey. Half way through the story, she begins to express a tentative feminism. She grows a pair of (metaphorical) balls – they’re not very big ones, but they’ll do. This is the time of the suffragettes. Women are only allowed to vote once they reach the age of thirty. Any balls are good balls.
My main criticism of this novel is that sometimes the characters are just slightly two-dimensional. The baddies are pretty bad – the mother-in-law, Catherine, who is spectacularly foul in every scene, pervy Uncle Billy who likes to get young girls pregnant, and Teddy the traveller who’s just plain creepy. The nice characters – Davey, Non, nephew Gwydion, son Wil, neighbour Lizzie – are a little too wholesome for my tastes.
Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers is about doing the best you can for the ones you love. It’s about dealing with the disturbing things in life which are as yet unnamed – autism, shell-shock, statuary rape. Despite this, it’s a gentle read. Death, war and mental breakdown seen through chaste eyes. This is not my thing, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. My Nan will love it.
Crystal Jeans is an online and print contributor to New Welsh Review.
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