Not Quite White by Simon Thirsk

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Not Quite White by Simon Thirsk

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: An intelligent, in-depth look at Anglo-Welsh relations in modern fictional times. A young, idealistic Englishman is given the unenviable remit by Westminster to 'sort out' a small community in Wales and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century - but is he up to this mammoth challenge?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Gomer Press
ISBN: 978-1848511996

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I found the title intriguing and hoped it would be explained, even in passing, by the author. It was. I loved Helen Dunmore's quote on the back cover which says that this book is An uplifting and utopian vision of Wales and its language. (As someone who has lived in both England and Wales) I was keen to start reading.

The story alternates between the two main characters: Welsh Gwalia (that's a she, by the way) and English Jon Bull (and you get an idea of the fun Thirsk has with his names and also characters) as the two meet up for the first time. Lots of Welsh names such as Gwenfer and Gwenlais and also lots of (mainly) unpronounceable place names including the glorious - wait for it - Llanchwaraetegdanygelyn. Thirsk has also scattered Welsh vocabulary all over the place: but many of the words are easily understood (Anti for Auntie and Yncl for Uncle etc) so you don't really have to keep referring to the comprehensive Appendix, unless you want to.

As the community in Wales await this very important man from posh and fancy London, there's all sorts of talk, rumour and speculation. Gossip is rife. Plenty of arm-folding and lip-pursing and tut-tutting and words spoken like swear words: English capitalists and why don't they just leave us alone etc. All good fun but with a bit of a bite, nevertheless.

The word Westminster introduces a touch of politics to the novel. And as the plot deepens, I came to see Jon Bull as a very earnest, young man. But is honest earnestness enough to get the job done - in the teeth of some ferocious locals? Thirsk knows his particular part of Wales well and his characters are believable: their way of speaking, their mannerisms and the fact that they can be so funny, without realizing it. So there are plenty of delightful paragraphs depicting all things Welsh, if you like.

But there's also a very clever twist with the character of Jon Bull. There's a part of his DNA which may just surprise you. It did me. I wasn't expecting it at all and it's so subtle that if you're not careful, you could miss it. But don't worry, it rears its significant head again much later in the story. It is a fine piece of narrative which I thoroughly appreciated. And while, at its heart, it's all about Welsh nationalism versus the big, bad colonialism of England, the story could easily broaden out to encompass other countries in similar political and economic situations. (Scotland gets a passing mention, for example).

The characters are superbly eccentric and colourful and in the main, unforgettable. I loved Gwalia's spirit, rising above past tragedy, proud to be Welsh but also intelligent enough to see the other side of the fence, the other point of view. Even if she wasn't going to agree with it. I warmed to Jon Bull right from the start. He is one interesting young man for reasons which will become clear as you read the book.

After I'd finished the novel I had the sense and it's my personal opinion of course, that Thirsk had a kernel or two of fact and then created his fiction around it. It worked for me and in the spirit of the book, I'd like to say in quite a loud voice if I may, that this novel can be read and enjoyed by both Welsh and non-Welsh readers alike. Recommended.

If this book appeals then have a look at Struggle or Starve by Carole White and Sian Williams.

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Anne M Fearon said:

Actually, Gwenlais and Gwenfer aren't Welsh names (anyway they don't appear on any "Welsh names" website I could find). "Gwenlais" could be a place name (I know of a "Carregwenlais") and Gwenfer (with a circumflex over the first "e") would seem to mean "Brief smile". I did wonder what he meant by these names?

Anne M. Fearon

PS "Penhaearn" seems to be actually the name of a fish! although it would mean literally "ironhead", so perhaps he thought it descriptive of this particular character; but it would seem rather cruel of any Welsh-speaking family to name their son after a fish!

Anne M Fearon said:

Having read further in this book since my earlier comment, I had a shock: Feminist readers beware! He describes the gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl and then says that "she asked for it". Welsh people (and others on the receiving end of colonialism) beware! He makes it clear that the girl represents Wales and that the rape represents the conquest. Thus he is saying that Wales asked, or deserved, to be conquered. This is called "blaming the victim" - a device popular with rapists and other perpetrators but unworthy of civilised people, who should have a deeper understanding and wider sympathies. I couldn't finish the book. Anne M.Fearon