In a faraway Welsh village, in which its stone cottages are as ancient as its trees, it rains every day in August. In its fairy-tale like world, in which everybody watches one another like owls preying at night, the Hopkins women live. A stone’s throw from a lake, Ty Aderyn – a bird house- has been divided into two cottages and stands as long as the living memory itself. In one resides Violet, and her teenage daughter Cadi and in the other Lilwen, and her magical garden.
What could have gone amiss between the women? Lilwen, a spinster, a woman who understands the language of herbs and flowers, is known for her witch-like reputation. Her English sister-in-law, Violet, was a grieving widow who found herself expecting Cadi in the aftermath of her husband’s death. A month beforehand Lilwen’s only sibling, crashed his car, their infant daughter Dora was drowned in the lake. It's the same lake that has been calling Cadi to get closer to it over the years despite Violet’s warnings.
In an idyllic setting Carol Lovekin, spins the tale of Blodeuwedd with a contemporary touch. In the mythic tale, the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes is turned into an owl after a failed plot with Gronw Pebr’s to kill her husband. Whilst she retains her name, her presence is hated by the other birds and she became unable to show her face during the daylight. In Lovekin’s hand the legend comes as a story of loss and love, grievance and hope in her evocative narrations.
Lovekin, who has Irish blood but is Welsh at heart, suffuses her debut novel with lyrical but visceral depictions that capture the lives of her protagonists. The frustrated Cadi has enough of the maddening silence between Violet and Lilwen. Gossipers Mrs Bevans and Mrs Guto-Evans, react to the return of Owen Penry, who Violet had a fling with fourteen years previously, stir the brew of simmering anger and self-hate. The wafting smell of doubts and home truths spew in the warm air after the rains. Lovekin showcases her sensitivity about affliction by threading the uncharted waters of forgiving and forgiveness through the outstanding metaphors.
It was a baby’s bangle. The kind you adjusted to fit a tiny wrist, decorated with patterns of flowers. Cadi shook her head to clear it of the cloying smell. She turned over the bangle, looking for signs of rust. There were none. It looked as good as new -someone must have lost it recently. She slipped it into a pocket of her jacket. She would ask at the shop. Someone may have put up a card.’
From the time Cadi bumps into Penry in the churchyard, little does she realise that the lid of a jar containing a must-not-be-spoken memory has been unscrewed. Born to a mother who won’t smile, she determines to find out about what happened and all the while the call of the lake grows louder in her ears.
Lovekin’s way of revealing moments of veracity are simple but effective; her dialogues thoughtful but poignant.
I’ve had to make up my own story because I haven’t known any better. But it’s never been the truth; only their version of it.
Cadi’s quest inevitably ruffles a few feathers in its wake; onfronting her indifferent mother and her eccentric aunt seems to make Lovekin’s lead character a very mature teenager. Moreover, Lilwen’s hosepipe-alike interventions to the mother and daughter’s fiendish verbal exchanges are somewhat comforting but unnecessary. As a result, the battle is petering out like the rain and the interesting sub-plots have a slight bland taste. Such as Violet and Lilwen’s fondness for each other, obscured by their opposing views, that remains mysterious in the penultimate ending. Lovekin has it right nevertheless with Violet’s raw emotions owing to her guilt and love whilst Cadi and Penry’s unlikely friendship that blossoms.
By the same token, the use of italics that sprawls throughout the book takes time to adjust. For some readers, particularly the virgins in The Mabinogion folk tale, they can be quite confusing at times. On the one hand, the italics are used to generate thoughts of the main characters and on the other hand, they also serve as the voice of the ghost bird whose calls are bewitching Cadi.
The ghost shivers in the rain.
She shakes her feathers, trying them for size.
An expanse of weightless sky entices her – she can go anywhere she chooses. She senses her talons, growing sharp and fine.
The other birds see her now. Screeching their alarms they try to chase her away.
The ghost flies into the cherry tree, waits until her sister falls asleep. Gliding through the mist she flies into Cadi’s dream.
This succinct book is a treat. More pleasure can be discovered in a second reading which highlights the time to indulge in an array of rhyming prose. More importantly, Lovekin deserves a commendation in her painstaking interpretation of the daughter of Math and Gwydion, the flower-faced woman of oak, meadowsweet and broom for a 21st-century market.
When a girl of fourteen has longed for something for most of her life, when the sense of it clings like dust to the edge of every waking thought, it’s possible old magic will hear her.
Thin veils may tremble as she passes, their fragile threads split, and she will step through.
Thanks to Honno Welsh Women's Press for the review copy.
Follow Carol on Twitter: @carollovekin