From stories of snakebite and black on the south Wales coast to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll at university in Aberystwyth, Rachel Trezise selects the best of the new guard of Welsh writers – plus a couple of golden oldies, for good measure
Welsh author Rachel Trezise won the inaugural Dylan Thomas prize, a £60,000 literary award for work by writers under 30, for her short story collection Fresh Apples. Her new novel, Sixteen Shades of Crazy, which launches at the Guardian Hay festival later this month, is based in a small Welsh town and tells the story of three women whose lives are upturned after the local police chief puts a ban on recreational drugs.
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“Books that could be described as ‘Welsh underground novels for the Skins generation’ were once scarce as chicken lips. Remember that there was no such thing as a teenager until the 50s, and that everything comes across the Severn bridge 20 years late. Add the huge hole left in Welsh literature by aspiring writers boarding trains to London and putting memories of the principality firmly behind them from the early 80s onward. Then you’ll understand why some of these entries aren’t strictly underground, Welsh, or aimed at the Skins generation. But you’ll notice too that some of them are. These are the new guard, the brave, hip inkslingers who began cropping up with an extraordinary force in the early noughties.”
1. Luggage from Elsewhere by Aneurin Gareth Thomas
A dazzling and devastating account of a bittersweet old south Wales childhood and adolescence, ripe with discotheques and pints of snakebite and blackcurrant. A group of friends grow up and experiment with sex, drugs and political action in a society coming to terms with loss of work and power. “We lived on the coast but only ever knew how to eat fish fingers.”
2. One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard
Devastating poverty, perversion and homicidal violence run happily alongside idyllic scenes of bilberry picking and choral singing in this child’s narration of rural life in north Wales in the early 1900s. Originally published in Welsh in 1961, the English translation by Philip Mitchell conveys the original and reads a little like Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, but better – a novel as complex as Wales itself, thoroughly unsettling and upsetting.
3. Gold by Dan Rhodes
Nobody treads the tragic-comic tightrope like Dan Rhodes. He’s not Welsh, sadly, but this novel is set in Pembrokeshire, where Miyuki has retreated for a break from her girlfriend. This would be the annual break with which she reminds herself not to take her girlfriend for granted. Her evenings are spent in the pub with a cast of amusing characters: tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and Septic Barry and his Children from Previous Relationships. Elegant, delicate and intricate all in one bundle.
4. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
Fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate is obsessed with his virginity, in love with his own intellect, and, like all good teenagers, packed with self-righteousness about his parents’ failings as he comes of age somewhere between Port Talbot and Swansea. Dunthorne thrusts poetry into the observational and is unflinching about the business of being a teenage boy, so Tate is a mostly believable and likeable narrator. Wordy, dirty and only occasionally infuriating.
5. Random Deaths and Custard by Catrin Dafydd
A heart-warming little novel about 18-year-old valley girl Sam Jones who works at the local custard factory. Dad is fresh out of clink, Mam is pregnant by the new boyfriend and squaddie brother Gareth is suffering a bout of PTSD brought on by a tour of Iraq. This is Dafydd’s first English-language work, having previously only written in Welsh. She, and it, have flawlessly bridged the culture gap.
6. The Suicide Club by Rhys Thomas
Not a grim analysis of teenage suicide clusters à la Bridgend but a fizzy first person narration from 15-year-old emo Richard Harper, a precocious teenager seeking affirmation of his uniqueness. The lure of the charismatic new kid at his posh school sees him becoming part of a suicide pact, with tragic consequences. It hints at The Catcher in the Rye of course, but brilliantly crafted nonetheless.
7. So Long Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
By day Hector Bebb drives a brewery lorry, by night he’s a boxer training for the big fight. Originally published in 1970, this was reissued recently in the Library of Wales collection with a foreword by an admiring Niall Griffiths. Less concerned with politics and religion than any Welsh writer who went before, Berry’s characters are working class and influenced by pop culture. They live in the industrialised “American Wales” talked about by Gwyn Thomas, and delight in all the fighting, boozing and fornicating which got left out of the mawkish, rose-tinted How Green Was My Valley.
8. Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub by John Williams
An introductory note on these interweaving short stories explains that “the Cardiff that appears in this book is an imaginary place that should not be confused with the actual city of the same name”. Or, a Cardiff that no longer exists. The Butetown here is home to Britain’s oldest black community, full of grungy pubs, sailors, immigrants and captivating fiction-worthy characters, fashioned from a stint as the world’s busiest port. Now Tiger Bay is Cardiff Bay, an identikit maritime quarter occupied by slick hotels, restaurants and flash apartment blocks. Visitors are unlikely to hear a Docks accent.
9. Grits by Niall Griffiths
Drifters from all over the UK and Ireland meet in a small coastal village in west Wales, trying to escape various addictions (drugs, alcohol, crime, promiscuity). The phonetic dialogue is trying; each character has their own in a book of 500 pages. But this novel resulted in a flourishing career for Griffiths, as well as a mini literary revolution in Wales, opening doors for new writers unworried by farming, non-conformism, coal or slate mining.
10. Freshers by Joanna Davies
Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll amidst the ivory towers of academia in the early 90s. Possibly Wales’s first “university” novel, set in Aberystwyth where three students embark on a journey punctuated by “bad boys”, chemicals and an affair with a married professor. Originally published in Welsh, the English language translation is out now.