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celtic myths, mabinogion, sheers

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Old 28th Apr 2012, 17:50   #1
ono no komachi
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Default Owen Sheers: White Ravens

Seren Books have commissioned a series of stories based on The Mabinogion, a medieval collection of tales from Celtic mythology, and when I saw that one of them was by Owen Sheers, whose novel Resistance I very much enjoyed a few years ago, I picked it up. It's based on the story Branwen, Daughter of Llyr.

It begins with farmer's daughter Rhian recalling economic hardship following the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001. She has ended up in London, in circumstances which are unclear at first. As she sits on a bench by the Tower of London, wondering what her future holds, an elderly man speaks to her sympathetically, and tells her a tale of the Second World War, when a young man invalided out of the Army is sent on a mission to collect six raven chicks from an isolated farm in Wales. When he arrives, the chicks have only just hatched, and so he is forced to stay for a number of weeks until they are old enough to leave the nest. Long enough for relationships to develop and events to be set on a life-changing course.

It's really a novella, less than two hundred pages, but the intertwining of tales from two generations make it feel like a substantial and rewarding read. I confess to being a little bit in love with Sheers' prose style, to which I think he lends his poetic capabilities, but in very readable fashion.

Suddenly, though I'd only just met him, I wanted him to turn back, to look at me again with those milky eyes and tell me it was alright, that it was alright to not have a bloody clue where you're going or where you've been. But he didn't; he just rested both his hands on his walking stick and his chin on his hands and looked out over the river to the city, hazy on the other side. Eventually he let out a sigh and, dipping his hand into his waistcoat, pulled out a silver pocket watch on a chain. He looked down at its face, not so much as to tell the time, but more as if he was looking through it, not at it, like it was a porthole not a watch, showing him a view of elsewhere, somewhere far away. He was still looking at it when he spoke to me again.

'Would you like to hear a story?' he said, still speaking soft and low.
The tale the old man tells has elements of romantic love, familial love, and dark conflict between a bride's family and her husband, and it goes to some knuckle-bitingly dark places. I think Sheers did a remarkable job in retaining the dark mythical feeling of some of the events in his updating of the story. There's something about the harshness of those old tales which, if taken and transposed to a set of characters that are more recent and therefore seemingly more real, goes straight to the rawest emotions and tears holes in the complacency of comfortable modernity.

So I just kept looking at the ravens, running their big old beaks under their wings like they were sharpening them, then settling again to catch the day's first heat in their midnight wings.

'The ravens,' he continued. 'They say they can tell your future. Coracomancy they call it.'
I loved this book. Flicking through it now for quotable pages is making me want to read it again, even though it's only a matter of a few weeks since I read it for the first time. And if you think you might enjoy Sheers' writing, I also heartily recommend Resistance. (Although when I went to its Wikipedia entry just now - let's just say if that's the current cover it's not doing the book any favours.)

Anyway, from me for White Ravens.
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