Shelley Harris, Jubilee (2011)

Satish Patel was a boy at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the son of an immigrant Ugandan family in an otherwise all-white Buckinghamshire village; he was a key figure in a photograph taken of the village’s Jubilee celebrations, an image which became iconic. Thirty years on, Satish is a successful cardiologist with a habit of helping himself to diazepam from the medicine cabinet; he receives a call from an old friend, telling him of plans to stage a reconstruction of the photo – but Satish is reluctant to take part.

Shelley Harris’s debut novel unpicks its central situation carefully, revealing the tensions beneath the apparent harmony shown in the photograph, and the secrets hidden by Satish and his friends and neighbours. If the ending feels to jump the gap of years a little too quickly in terms of how it deals with the issues between characters, the journey up to that point is engaging – with the writing of Satish’s addiction particularly sharp – and the book as a whole represents a promising start to Harris’s career as a novelist.

Fflur Dafydd, The White Trail (2011)

Time for a look at the latest in Seren’s series of books reworking tales from the Mabinogion. Fflur Dafydd’s contribution is based on the myth of ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’; but, rather than a straightforward modern retelling, the author sends her story off in a different direction grown out of filling in gaps in the beginning of the original tale. Dafydd’s protagonist is Cilydd, who’s searching for his missing pregnant wife when he finds evidence that she is dead and the baby has been stolen. Cilydd becomes involved with a missing persons charity, and is settling into a new relationship, when his son Culhwch reappears, with the story of his strange upbringing, and the desire to rescue a beautiful girl named Olwen from the father who keeps her prisoner.

The White Trail examines what drives Cilydd to go on as he does, how far it’s  genuine concern and compassion, and how far the need to fill holes in his life. The book also explores the rights and wrongs of looking for people who may not want to be found, and this is where Dafydd uses the fantastic to great effect. The opening section on Cilydd’s life is firmly grounded in the reality of contemporary Wales, but the novel slides towards fantasy when Culhwch appears on the scene; this is imagined so convincingly that it’s a quite a jolt to be pulled back into quotidian reality at the end – and that jolt represents the way that characters’ actions and motivations which seemed reasonable to us at the time suddenly appear less so when the circumstances change. It’s a wonderful moment in a fine piece of work.

Horatio Clare, The Prince’s Pen (2011)

The Mabinogion story of ‘Lludd and Llevelys’ forms the inspiration for Horatio Clare’s novel, and his reinterpretation is less oblique than Dafydd’s: the myth tells of three ‘plagues’ which befall Britain (an invasion by a seemingly omniscient people; the maddening screams of two dragons; and the disappearantce of food from the king’s larders); Clare translates these threats into the context of a near future where only remnants of England lie above sea-level, and Wales is one of the last outposts of the free world. The volume we hold is the story of the Welsh bandit kings Ludo and Levello and their battle against the Invaders, as told by Clip, trusted associate (and amanuensis) of the illiterate Ludo.

Perhaps more so than with Dafydd’s story, The Prince’s Pen gains effect from comparison with the source tale; Clare’s updating of the ‘plagues’ is smart and speaks firmly to contemporary concerns. The book faltered a little for me as a narrative at the beginning, in that the battle scenes didn’t feel to have as strong an anchoring in reality as they might. But The Prince’s Pen works well as a portrait of the complexities faced by rulers trying to stick to their principles in time of war.