United Kingdom: coming home

December 31, 2012

Well, here we are. The 196th book (197th really, counting the Rest of the World choice) and the final post of the project that took over my life in 2012.

It’s been the most extraordinary year. We’ve seen a story specially written for the blog from South Sudan, a book translated by a team of volunteers to enable me to read something from Sao Tome and Principe, and been given a sneak preview of an illustrated, trilingual collection of microstories from Luxembourg, as well as many other wonderful discoveries.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest and support the blog has drawn around the world. From the huge number of people who have given up their time to help me track down those elusive titles and the many visitors who have liked, shared and commented on posts – keeping me going through all those late nights and early mornings – to the media interest that saw the blog featured on CNN International, in the national press and on UNESCO’s list of initiatives for World Book Day, the response has been humbling. Thank you.

I’m also delighted that the project will see another book added to the world – Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, which I’m writing for UK publisher Harvill Secker and comes out in 2014.

But back to the matter in hand. As far as I could see, the only way to finish this odyssey was with a return to the place where it all started and where I first discovered my love of reading: the UK.

At first glance, it seemed obvious that I would choose one of the bastions of British literature as my final book – something by Dickens or Eliot, perhaps, or a more modern work by Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse or Waugh.

However, as the year went on and I became less and less convinced by the idea of one book summing up a country’s literature, other thoughts started to creep in. In particular, I began to think more about translation.

After all, I started this project because I realised I hardly ever read world literature and never read books in translation. And yet here I was living in a country that was home to several native languages other than English, the literatures of which I had never explored.

With this in mind, I wandered up to the Welsh Books Council stand at the London Book Fair earlier this year and asked for some suggestions. (I might as easily have chosen to read Gaelic literature or something translated from the now-dead Cornish language, but Welsh has a particular significance for me, it being my grandfather’s mother tongue.)

The woman I spoke to was very helpful and had many recommendations. However, one in particular stood out: Martha, Jack and Shanco by Caryl Lewis. It won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2005 and the English translation came out two years later. Intrigued, I noted it down and set off to find a copy.

Set on the bleak farm of Graig-ddu in west Wales, the novel recounts a year in the lives of three ageing siblings who were born and grew up there. Caught up in the demanding day-to-day running of the farm, Martha, Jack and their mentally disabled brother Shanco have little time to dwell on what else the world might have to offer them. But every so often outside forces break into their isolation, testing the forces that bind them to the memory of their parents and the place that shaped, warped and made them who they are.

Lewis’s evocation of this harsh and remote world is powerful. From the first scene, in which we follow the siblings as they head out in the dead of night to discover the reason for the wounds on one of their cows’ udders, we are caught up in the grim realities of life on Graig-ddu. This is a place where kittens tumble to their deaths from roofbeams, crows beat their beaks bloody at the window panes, and rams’ horns must be reshaped to stop them from growing into the creatures’ heads.

In the face of such daily occurrences and the gruelling physical schedule (not helped by Jack’s adherence to his father’s antiquated farming equipment), there is no room for sentimentality. Instead, emotions must be expressed in private and through little things – Mami’s bedroom kept as it was when she died, the wreath laid annually on the parents’ grave, the upturned washing-up bowl shielding the footprint Gwynfor left the day Martha told him she could not leave the farm and marry him.

Lewis’s writing reflects this too, condensing poignancy and meaning into a series of fleeting, yet breathtakingly precise images. There is the description of Martha and Shanco lying awake at night ‘each skull a bird cage full of thoughts flapping in the hope of freedom’, the way Jack tries to make sense of his sister’s words ‘laying them out one by one like clothes put out to dry on the line’, and the portrayal of Martha’s ‘home’s landscape […] coated with a drift’ of interloper Judy’s things.

For all the bleakness of the setting however, there is humour and beauty too. Jack’s partnership with his sheepdog Roy is mesmerising, as is the depiction of the myriad stars in late summer ‘as though someone had cast them like quicksilver into the sky’. In addition, cameo characters like neighbouring farmer Will, who turns his cap round and continues on at the same speed when he wants his tractor to go faster, and Martha’s high jinks with the windpipes of the turkeys she butchers for Christmas add an endearing warmth to the narrative.

They also give it a sense of tradition and archaism that makes you forget that you are reading about contemporary Wales. Time and again, I found myself pulled up short by mentions of EU directives and 4×4s that reminded me that the story was set not in some long-distant decade and land, but a handful of years ago and only a few hundred miles from my London flat.

Now and then, Lewis labours her points. The repeated statements of the particulars of Mami’s will, which saw Graig-ddu entailed jointly on the siblings, for example, feel a little unnecessary. In addition, the careful fleshing out of most of the characters shows Judy up as rather two-dimensional in contrast. I also felt the steps leading to the climax of the novel could have been more subtly seeded into the narrative.

As a whole, though, this is a haunting and engrossing book. Lyrical, harsh and deeply moving, the novel reveals what it means to be born into a way life that leaves you no real room for imagining anything else. It is a reminder that you don’t have to look beyond the boundaries of your own nation to find people living in quite different worlds from your own.

Thanks again to everyone who has made this project possible and a special thank you to my fiancé Steve, who lived through it with me, took the picture at the top and came up with many of the best ideas along the way.

If you’d like to stay up to date with post-world developments, you can follow me on Twitter (@annmorgan30) or like the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page (by popular request I’ll be posting a shortlist of favourite commercially available world reads there in a few days’ time).

And if you’ve enjoyed this journey, I’d love it if you would join me on my next adventure, which will be taking shape over the next few months.

For now, though, I’m off to celebrate. Happy New Year everyone. Have fun!

Martha, Jack and Shanco (Martha Jac a Sianco) by Caryl Lewis, translated from the Welsh by Gwen Davies (Parthian, 2007)

40 Responses to “United Kingdom: coming home”

  1. Snigdha said

    Yay! Congratulations and a happy new year! :)

  2. Congratulations on finishing! I found the blog late in the year but it was very interesting. Such a cool project. :)

  3. Happy New Year! What a lovely journey you’ve taken us on…thank you!

  4. alua said

    You must feel so chuffed (and like you were super productive this year getting through that many books)! Neat film and I love the fact that you finished with a Welsh book translated into English for the UK! Happy 2013!

  5. Congratulations on finishing! Happy New Year and thanks for sharing your crazy adventure with us!

  6. kheenand said

    Fantastic achievement and great to hear you are getting the recognition for your accomplishment. How can we get hold of the ST and Principe book now that its translated? Reason I ask is that I have a challenge of reading authors from countries linked by the equatorial and prime meridian lines which will never get completed if I can’t get anything from ST

    • Thanks! It’s not available at the moment, but watch this space. Alternatively, as a back up someone recommended an essay which they said was ‘novelesque’ in the comments on the post and has been translated. Depending on your criteria, it could be worth checking out…

  7. jean said

    Congratulations!!! Brilliant idea and brilliant effort! For me (and no doubt many others) your blog has become a valuable source of reading, travel, and blogging/writing inspiration.
    Thank you :-)

  8. arbohl said

    Congratulations and happy new year! What a splendid task to have accomplished :)

  9. Lauren said

    Thank you for keeping me both informed and entertained over the journey! I read a lot in translation (and I speak German too, which helps), but rarely from outside Europe/the Americas, so I’ve got a long list of books to follow up now.

    And congratulations on completing the challenge!

  10. Fay said

    I just followed you on Twitter to be informed about your next project. Congratulations on a wonderful year of reading.

  11. Louise Rogers Lalaurie said

    Lovely account of the book, which sounds as if it owes more than a little to Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On the Black Hill’, though I wonder if the author would be happy to agree? Missed you at Translation Day but will dip into the blog with pleasure and look forward to the book!

  12. Should I say you are brave enough to choose books/topics that use language other than English to give a taste of its literature to the english speaking community. Commendable ! you are doing a noble job indeed. All the best !!

  13. What a cool idea- I wish I had found this blog earlier in your journey, but well done!

  14. asayed01 said

    Reblogged this on asayed01 and commented:
    I am just up coming.

  15. rachel4848 said

    What a fantastic journey you’ve had and a great idea too!

  16. Sending you a rather belated congratulations! Your journey impressed and inspired me so very much! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  17. Hello. I have nominated you for the Best Moments Award. I invite you to stop by my blog and see what’s it’s all about. Have a fantastci day :)

    ~ Olivia

  18. Reblogged this on ramzankhan78659 and commented:
    I love my friend

  19. Nats said

    Congrats! I am downloading samples of the books you read and hope to build my own little library room in India soon.

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