If you want a novel which contains pretty much the full panoply of human emotions then Y Defodau is precisely that. It’s not as if you haven’t been warned. The cover blurb by Sian Northey declares that seldom does a novel make her cry but that this one most certainly did.
I’d suggest that perhaps that isn’t warning enough as I found myself pretty much shuddering at times and had the move the book lest the pages get tear-sodden. It’s what you might describe as having emotional maximum impact as Roberts puts you through the wringer and then some.
Its intriguing central character, Gwawr, is a non-religious celebrant who takes part in namings, weddings and funerals and is therefore often involved in rituals which span the spectrum from unbridled joy to complex grief, including rites of passage and acts of remembrance.
Gwawr is good at her job, which means she has built up a steady stream of work, even though she often decides not to charge people she knows, or otherwise forgets to charge for her services. She’s certainly not in it for the money.
But things go very much awry for her when she looks after the showbiz marriage of a soap actress Maxine Monroe to footballer Darren, a gaudy, nouveau riche affair held in the garden of, where else, their Cheshire mansion, where everything seems to be for show and arrayed for maximum effect.
When the bridegroom makes a brazen pass at her minutes before the ceremony Gwawr manages to shrug off his advances but afterwards a Twitter exchange with him soon spirals out of control after the new bride finds out.
What makes it doubly or trebly worse is the fact that someone has sent a slew of messages purporting to be from Gwawr, some of them being starkly pornographic.
When the newspapers get hold of them the ensuing scandal sees a rash of cancellations, as most of Gwawr’s clients disassociate themselves from her, following clunky headlines such as “Celebrant Tried to Steal Soap Queen’s Groom on Night of Wedding.’
Gwawr is soon stuggling to pay the bills and using foodbanks along with depending on the kindness of her family and sometimes of strangers to get by.
Dark night of the soul
One of the rays of light in her long, dark night of the soul comes from an unexpected source when she strikes up a friendship with Wayne, a dour, awkward countryman who comes into her life along with a companionable spaniel.
He is still deep in grief after the death by suicide of his wife, so clouds lour over him whatever the weather.
There’s the glimmer of romance but Wayne’s anger management, or rather his lack of any, finds him breaking a man’s nose at a funeral, then having to leave the area as he’s already been in gaol once before, after what he describes as the red mist settling over his eyes, a sure sign that violence is in the offing.
Rebecca Roberts negotiates all the emotional slaloms and chicanes of her story as a novelist very much in charge of both turns and twists and one supremely confident at the controls.
She assembles a busy, lively cast of characters and breathes life into them as if she has spare oxygen tanks and does so within an intriguing narrative structure which allows her to weave in soap-queen Maxine’s wishlist, or maybe that should be dictats for her happy day, Gwawr’s preparatory notes for funerals and namings and even a judicious collection of press cuttings which help advance the story and deepen our understanding of the characters.
Quiet power of love
But at the heart of all this is Gwawr’s own unspoken grief, caused by the death of a child and it’s here than the novel descends into some unfathomable depths of misery, loss and absence.
If we were on Gwawr’s side to begin with – not least because of her effortless kindness and concern for others – then we now find ourselves fully rooting for her, almost as if she’s a close friend.
And so when fortune starts to smile on her again we the readers find ourselves smiling too, in part because of the respite this brings from all the upsets in her life but also because we’re reminded that one of the pulsing, heartening subjects of the book is the quiet power of love to transcend misery and bad luck and to heal all manner of pain.
So, without giving too much away, let me say that that redemptive, healing quality of love comes very much to the fore at the novel’s close which, in turn, engenders happiness of the most communicable kind.
A happy ending, yes, to a novel which confirms Rebecca Roberts’ growing reputation as one of our most skilful novelists.
Like her other novels Y Defodau once again details the travails and tests faced by a compellingly drawn and resiliently strong woman, whose strength is found in such things as compassion and care, not least when she learns to apply such qualities to herself.
Learning to love oneself is just one of the many life lessons woven into this fine novel which will hopefully one day be translated so that even more readers can get to meet Gwawr, which name translates as Dawn, and encounter the various people who help get her through the day.
Y Defodau is published by Honno and is available here or from good bookshops
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