Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Menna Gallie's "Strike for a Kingdom" Book Review

Although this has been reissued by the Welsh press Honno, with an introduction by scholar Veronica John, I read the only copy available in American libraries, the original 1959 printing, with a curious cover. A series of blurbs by "famous writers," among them Norman Thomas, Jacques Barzun, and Eleanor Roosevelt comprises the image, while a drawing of stylized skeletal miners marching at night takes up the entire back jacket design. The inside promises a mix of mystery and mischief. This 1959 edition was Gallie's first novel, and as Time magazine summed it up in a favorable reception the following year: "The language has a strong, sly wit, and the story—of a troubled, strikebound village—is told with force and skill. Welsh-born Novelist Gallie is able to give her sympathy to the strikers without the posturing of protest literature, and to evoke the gamy folk flavor of her villagers without being cute or condescending."

The anonymous reviewer's correct: this novel carries itself out of the whodunit genre by its carefully composed sentences, its ability to shift mid-conversation among its multi-dimensional characters from their own indirectly conveyed perspectives to an omniscient voice that's both gentle and severe. Gallie keeps this tone, much easier to describe than fulfill, throughout this short account, which somehow manages to offer depth and density without feeling labored, self-important, or stylized as it tells us about a few of the inhabitants of a splendidly rendered, yet carefully delineated, Welsh village during the 1926 General Strike all over Britain.

A couple of samples. D.J. Williams, a real-life poet, here enters the action as a rather unwilling magistrate and fellow striker. He. amidst the tensions of the unsolved case at hand and the pressure of the strikers who are gathering that evening for a protest march, ponders the fate of a neighbor woman as she lies on her deathbed. "Men, he thought, were not much use at the beginnings and ends of life, but they saw to it that they dominated its little midday business." The next page: Here was the threat and promise of death with him in the room and his mind must keep running off to transient things like speeches and committees and organizations and murders. Why did the big subjects always take second place; were they in truth boring? Perish the thought." (33-4) As a line later puts it: "it was too realistic to be true" (168)-- this novel immerses you in such a place and such a fiction.

Policeman Glyndwr Thomas spars with a gung-ho Inspector. "'There's one good thing about this strike, Thomas. None of our suspects can run away before tomorrow. Nobody's got any money and they wouldn't get far on foot.' 'No, that's right enough. Not unless they steal your car,' Thomas said, with a flash of hope in his eyes.'" (165) It's the only car in the village of Cilhendre, by the way. Such moments balance the poverty and the humanity of the people there, none of whom fall into stereotype. The humor of the two lawmen's visit to Peci's farm and then that of Old Williams shows the depth of identification Gallie, from a small locale herself, could share without edging into caricature.

Likewise, as with D.J. or many of those suspected by the Inspector, their own half-sensed foibles and subconscious hesitations manage to engage us with empathy rather than ridicule or disdain. The ending to the case comes if not totally surprisingly, at least poetically. Gallie handles the climax and resolution confidently and gently. She, like her reader, deals with Cilhendre's characters and we realize that while we have read in this tale of more than one protagonist, the expected antagonist eludes easy identification. The generosity of the author and her villagers ensures this.

(See Amazon & my blog for my review of her "You're Welcome to Ulster," one of the first Troubles novels, as well as Caradog Prichard's "One Moonlit Night." Gallie had earlier translated this than the Philip Mitchell version I posted on in both forums a few days ago; Gallie had given the novel the title in English "Full Moon.")

No comments: