Anyone visiting the Gower will be knocked out by its beauty, but it’s only a fairy-tale landscape if you’re visiting, the lives of its people, the ones who live and work there, are redolent with the same dark secrets as any community. Young or old, rich or poor, Fraser has opened a window on lives steeped in the locale. Her stories reflect on fears and life chances, on family relationships and the bond to the land and, often, they focus on the tragedy of life’s cycle.
This is a collection of short stories evocative of the turmoil of loss, grief, suffering and survival. These themes are beautifully complemented by the sense of landscape and weather which reinforce the tone and texture of the tales, particularly the South Westerlies, the winds that sweep the peninsula. Taken together the whole is an emotional panorama because each individual story captures a tender moment – a raw emotion, a person exposed. Every tale teases out an aspect of grief, loss or hardship; from initial shock to resigned acceptance to restructuring life and moving on. These are tales told by characters most often in the moment, living the pain and uncertainty. They feel like stories that are dragged from the depths of memory, the dark corners of our minds we’d rather not face. Sometimes, as readers, we have the benefit of hindsight, and the recognition that comes with distance. However, more often this is a poignant and touchingly evocative anthology that forces the reader to recognise something of their own experiences in it. So a character describing her mother but not recognising her depression for what it is will chime with some readers own experience over the years. This debut collection reveals that Jane Fraser has a strong voice and a clear vision for her fiction.
Some of these stories are not much more than vignettes but they are a perfect encapsulation of a moment or an emotion. Most often these are tales of the darker side of life. There’s an edginess me a sadness to the stories. Yet you can tell that Fraser loves her home, it’s just that she is not blind to its human story, to the rural problems of isolation and poverty, the lack of opportunity for young people, the effects of being a holiday resort and exposure to a rugged physical environment. These stories have an authenticity that comes from Fraser’s openness to how the Gower can shape local lives for good and bad.
The people of these stories come from different backgrounds but they share that common cultural heritage: the influence of language, landscape and myth. These are people trapped, both rooted to the land and to the prisons we make in our own minds. Although they may not be able to understand the influence of home on their lives. I’ve picked a few of my favourite stories to give the flavour of the twenty stories in the collection.
This is the Boat that Dad Built appears to be the story of Raymond Williams, the butcher, as told by his daughter Jane. Every morning he rises at 6am and studiously avoids waking his wife before making breakfast for the children. Raymond is an easy character, he has a passive nature. He is building a dinghy for the family to enjoy the sea. As the story unfolds it is a reflection on his wife’s depression, the stagnation of their marriage, mental health and a child’s understanding of her parents.
“Look Jane, don’t go upsetting your mother now – saying nothing’s best. You know she needs her rest and likes a little lie down in the afternoons. She’s a bit down at the minute.”
Out of Season sees a narrator and a dog at the bus stop early on Christmas morning, it’s drizzling, the stop smells of piss and fag butts. She carves a ‘J’ in the sand which has been swept up here by the wind. The arrival of the red beetle makes her reassess her dark thoughts. Out of Season is a reflection on loneliness, feeling trapped and torpor in life.
The Gower Explorer.
“Gweddw, ydw I.” (A widow, am I) now that her husband Matthias Joseph Beynon, 1928-1998 is gone she asks herself:
“Pwy ydw i, nawr?” (Who am I now?)
As a woman contemplates life alone and the uncertainty of the future we learn about the marriage and moments of regret and adversity. The Welsh language phrases set this story in its place perfectly and the clever use of a children’s rhyme adds to the elegance of the boned down prose.
Leave the Light on for Me is the story of Colin Rees and an ordinary April morning, suddenly the presence of his father’s casket changes the picture we see. Themes of grief and traditional roles in the family.
Chasing the Shadow combines a trip out for mother and daughter, age means that the way they see each other is changed, they are changed, but they can still share a moment. On the Fourteenth Day Richard Morgan is sitting on the same bench looking out of sea at Rhossili bay. Meg Griffiths lives on the headland. This mystical and haunting tale of loss sees Meg befriends the grieving man. The South Westerlies reflects on what we know of each other but also the difficulty in coming to terms with trauma. There is so much more to each story for readers to discover.
Fraser is a consummate short story writer. Each story conveys an aspect of life on the Gower; they are succinctly told, not a word wasted, and they are emotionally charged. They are simple tales beautifully told, sometimes utilising the lyrical Welsh language, they are layered and nuanced. Small moments that somehow make a vast landscape of human experience. This feels like a story from the heart, something of the place and people where Jane Fraser lives is conveyed to the reader.
Paul Burke 4/4
The South Westerlies by Jane Fraser
Salt 9781784631956 pbk Jun 2019