On love; on writing. And welcome to the world, Almost. (You need to keep your eyes open for the last part of the epigraph, below…)
So, I have been holed up at home this week, on writing retreat, which is to say working on this novel and starting the reading, planning and drafting for two other books. I took a week off work and the lovely people in our community did the school run for the youngest of my three and took him home for playdates after school to free up time and energy for me. Ah, it isn’t straightforward, this. I have been sleeping badly for some months because of the effects of multiple bereavements, doing my level best to support others (including teenagers and other young people) in times of illness and loss and coping with some really thorny issues at the heart of my extended family which hurt me deeply and which I have had no choice but to tackle. I am exhausted. And hoorah: I still have some palsy on one side (won’t bore you with the details) so one hand is acting like a mess of sausages and won’t do what I bid it. Typos an issue!
And yet and yet. I re-wrote a novel, started the others, looked after three kids and planned for my business – I kept my heart open and re-evaluated. Because, in the ready care that I have felt this week; in the encouragement from my friends, new and old, and in the interest they have shown in what I am doing, I am immensely cheered and, so, stronger. The rest of it can be painful and frustrating because the cheer is not all there is. But you cannot wait for absolutely the right circumstances for happiness or to go boldly in the direction of your dreams; cannot (truly) line up each criterion and tidy it all up. That is to defer everything to fate. And for writing, as with life, there is not an ideal set of circumstances; I suppose you just…do it; make a start; carry on. One way and another, I have written around 80,000 words this week, plus other letters to publishers and just a little social media. I am not an island. Love. xxxx
The Life of Almost
A Life Of Very Little Expectation.
The Life of Almost is a Welsh and spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy with poor beginnings, who begins his life shrouded by bereavement and alongside those on the run from the law and from life; he is also surrounded by the hauntings of the undead of his family and the cliff-top communities around him. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, like Pip, sings into the sea and likes to tell stories—and telling stories is a key theme of the book. The book is the story of his life and work and of how he struggles and triumphs, is thwarted in love but also begins to understand that he has been gifted deeper and commanding powers the night he meets a ragged convict at the sea cave, for the convict is a merman, come on land, as are other characters in the novel.
Almost is dragged up by his sister Perfection, both of them kept in their place from beyond the grave by their mother and other matriarchs. Almost cries with the name his late mother gave him because he feels he will never amount to much, but gradually he begins to realise that, by calling to the world around him and by telling stories, extraordinary things begin to happen; to grasp how uncertain the edges of reality and of life and death might be when he meets the strange, ragged man (Derian Llewhellin, based on Magwitch) on the beach at the beginning of the story – and I am keen for a reader to enjoy the supernatural and mystical elements of this book; to see death and life, horror and love, beauty and brutality in one place, close by, complementary even: ‘Celtic Magic’, as Matthew Arnold expressed it.
Almost has, like Pip, a secret benefactor and a true love; he has his own convict (the strange ragged man mentioned above) and a cruel sister; he is apprenticed to a trade, but his is the mortuary, not the workshop. Almost is supported by his devoted mermaids, Dilys and Nerys, who follow him, changing form (I have drawn on mermaid lore in my research for the book), and by a number of friends in different locations. But readers of Great Expectations would recognise adaptations of characters, such as Pip’s friend, Herbert Pocket, Miss Havisham, Estella and Jaggers, the latter, for example, recast as a lugubrious but prosperous journeyman, basking in his gold and quoting Jonson’s Volpone from his gated community a long way from Almost’s Pembrokeshire.
The text is a curious and unexpected reworking of a well-known novel, and a dark comedy told, largely, by a protagonist whose state is ambiguous and unsettling. The initial narrator of this darkly comic book of literary fiction, Catherine, calls up her friend, Almost Llewhellin, of Charity House, The Headland, to tell her a story because she is sick at heart and tired of life. It is the summer of 2016 and yet an epigraph at the beginning of the tale announces that Almost Llewhellin was lost at sea, presumed dead, in 1963. So who is Almost? What special qualities does he possess and what are Catherine’s or the reader’s expectations of him? Is he there, imagined, alive or dead? And what of his cohort? Hot mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea cave, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. I have allowed some risk-taking with the novel’s form in its use of original poems as epigraphs, all of which key into the themes in the novel, as they describe the dark vagaries of the Welsh landscape, which is itself a key character in the book, living and breathing and casting penumbra and surrounded by the sea. I have also offered two endings to the love story, subtly happy and sad, because I wanted to bring to mind how Great Expectations might have been radically altered in its reception, had Dickens been encouraged to use his original ending, far more melancholy that that which replaced it, but also that Almost is encouraging Catherine, the narrator, to choose her own ending. And the coda that follows allows us to know that Almost is not the only Pembrokeshire boy who has evolved magic, dead or alive, for to the door comes Muffled Mfanwy and perhaps her story can be a sequel, if only in the reader’s imagination.
Here is the epigraph to the novel:
When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.
I heard them say he took it, but where it went,
I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had
been drained, in The Sloop, with all his pints,
or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout
that he married well and was a man they liked,
but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,
I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped
off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:
that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,
but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.
Almost Llewhellin. ‘Lewis.’
“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son.”
Abel Magwitch, in Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, chapter thirty nine.
‘…A tall tree on the river’s bank, one half of it
burning from root to top, the other half in green leaf.’
Peredur Son Of Efrawg (from The Mabinogion).
A grave at Capel Dewi, Broad Haven: In Loving Memory of Almost Derian Llewhellin of Druidstone Haven. Presumed lost at sea, with his beloved wife, Seren Davies Llewhellin, of Clandestine quay, May 1963.