Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Menna Gallie's "In These Promiscuous Parts" Book Review

I continue to search out this Welsh novelist's work, as background for my research into her "You're Welcome to Ulster," and I've also critiqued her first book, "Strike for a Kingdom," both here and on Amazon US. She sought a popular audience, and the cover of her last book, from 1986, with its curious title (a quote from Kipling's "The Elephant's Child") and the airbrushed Welsh cottage looking indeed like as her omniscient narrator comments late in the story, "a children's drawing," appears misleading on two counts. The sex remains discreet and barely PG, and despite the titular promise, there's not much action in the sack, at least for the protagonist Rosie. She's visiting her "rather stupid and uncompromising Marxist" mother Myfanwy, who had named her after Rosa Luxemberg, and definitely Myf's waspish lines remain the best here. She lives, by the way, in Krupskya, a house named after Mrs. Lenin.

An early exchange after-- shades of R.S. Thomas-- Myf's turned off the central heating. Rosie's rebuked, "you know how I feel about central heating ever since your father's sister was killed by it." When her daughter reminds her that this was only because "My Auntie Hettie electrocuted herself by shoving a pair of scissors inot a switched-on plug because she couldn't get her iron in," Myf dismises the "nasty end-- not entirely undeserved, I might add" that had befallen Hettie and then blathers on about "the citadels of privilege being attacked by the storm troopers of the working classes," forgetting that her maid's working for Myf herself to keep her ungrateful son at Cambridge, and that Rosie had been sent off to boarding school and then Oxford.

Although Rosie's supposedly back at her hometown Trenewydd from that same citadel of privilege to work on her own book, this appears never to surface again and the sabbatical's spent getting into mischief with the hapless Water Bailiff, helping salmon poachers evade said enforcer, and dealing with a dull main plot involving the Ladies of Llwynrhos, Myf's failed run for Labour, a Traveller smuggler, displaced Italians and a misplaced Italian painting.

Descriptions do enliven the lighthearted story of life in a small village. There's an extended exposition of the village as Rosie drives down into it that's a tour-de-force. I was disappointed that the Welsh Language Society's furtive sawing off of English-language "fingerposts" proved their only shadowy appearance, and the whole context of the back-to-nature incomers who swarmed into such Welsh hamlets started off promisingly evoked but the thread then became left behind as Gallie pursued the local policeman's investigation of the purloined painting. Still, late on, here's an insight.

An elderly woman worked to the bone caring for a farm commune aiming for idealized self-sufficiency sighs. Meg: "There's no fantasy, nothing fantastic, a stupid, drab, and dreary place. With a tawdry, second-hand mysticism. The alternative society. It only means choosing to stink to high heaven and wearing U.S. army castoffs. They wear camouflaged army uniforms as a symbol of their freedom, their break-out, rejection, and they don't even get the joke." (232) Gallie's at her best in her fiction when recording such honesty, in monologues and dialogues, and the vast changes that separate this tale of a not-so-young woman down from the university with her young-man-from-the-mines up to Oxbridge in her 1960 "Man's Desiring" (Jesu, joy of-- or Jesus College, Oxford, the institution founded for the medieval Welsh?) show the enormous gap between the Lucky Jim-meets-How Green Was My Valley aura of her pre-Sixties story with this mid-Eighties tale of encroaching middle-aged loneliness in a rural hideaway not so isolated, and increasingly threatened by its poor economy for the locals and its attractive amenities for the entitled.

Rosie finds at the novel's close a muted epiphany. Gallie's never been one, at least from the four novels of hers I've found so far, for the grandly intricate plot. She's most at home with characters and their interior restlessness and their half-articulate speech to themselves and to each other. This novel may not rank with those reprinted and rediscovered today, as it shies away from the social contexts that I believe goaded her into her sharpest observations. Yet, any reader wishing to imagine Wales in the era of post-hippie longhairs, Cold War thaws, and a straitened future for its unidealized small-town denizens can find them evoked here.

(Review posted to Amazon US today.)

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