Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Menna Gallie's "The Small Mine": Book Review

Gallie's third novel forms a sort of trilogy of small-town Wales and the tensions that, at this novel's end, draw one of the key characters off to Nottingham in the wake of her lover Joe Jenkins' sudden death in a mine accident. Like her first, "Strike for a Kingdom," this novel takes place in the fictional but very vividly realized town of Cilhendre. The book opens with a depiction of being inside a coal pit and many of its best scenes take place within its depths. Within such darkness, the words do the detailing, and Gallie pays closer attention to nuances of character and shifts in mood as conversations ebb and flow that also made "Strike" justly her best-known work. "Small Mine" too deserves attention by any reader rediscovering her small body of novels about the Welsh.

Like her second novel, the young-man-from-the-mines up to "Oxbridge" tale "Man's Desiring," Joe himself possesses talent that could have rewarded him if he had left Cilhendre. He chooses not to, at least for now, however, with dire results as he seeks innocently to save up for a car with which to court the two women he dates. His death, halfway through the novel, sets up the recriminations and emotions that Gallie evokes with a believable mixture of frankness and discretion, depending upon her indirect narration through her characters. More than her plots, her novels succeed best at delineating how people think and how they talk, and how these two moods or modes change. Here is an example. Joe's mother has just been told of Joe's death in the small mine.

"She didn't think about how to behave; shocked and sick and obscurely excited, she ran away, the sentimentality of the role she was cast to play repulsed her. She cried out her rejection of the part at first more than the loss of Joe, she was suddenly angered by the drama and what was foisted upon her. This melodrama had nothing to do with her or with Joe. She had to get away from it, out from the sentiment, out from the sick emotion. She ran out into the road and thumbed a lift and ran away and talked a little to the driver of the car about the weather." (104)

While Gallie elsewhere in this novel does show a slightly slackened control, as she loves using triple adjectives and at times shows too obviously what could be more discreetly told, "The Small Mine"-- as with the two previous books I have mentioned-- is worth seeking out. Again, her plotting remains her least surprising feature, but the affection and empathy she shares among her recognizably human and humane characters in what could have been a tidy melodrama reveals her command of tone. I wish, in fact, that the pacing had slowed to allow more insight into some of her creations, as I liked even the villains and wanted to spend more time with them. A few of them vanished well before the end rather suddenly-- perhaps too much verisimilitude to life's caprices? A forgivable fault in a writer, certainly!

I also reviewed [on Amazon US & this blog] along with "Strike" two of her later books, "You're Welcome to Ulster" and "In These Promiscuous Parts." In these, as with middle-aged Sall Door Ever Open in "Small Mine," Gallie finds her forté in her portrayals of women of a certain age who find their sexuality restless even as they edge into their forties and find their prospects for stability diminishing in a censorious and small-minded society based in mid 20c. small-town life's constrained possibilities.

P.S. I review the original edition published in 1962, without the preface by critic Jane Aaron in the Welsh press Honno's reprint. {Posted to Amazon US today.]

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