Send My Cold Bones Home by Tristan Hughes
Seldom does a book grip so early. Unusually, the Prologue has three chapters (and so, for that matter, has the Epilogue). The first describes a long journey to go a short distance, through the overhung, maze-like lanes of Ynys Môn. It is a two-car cortège; and the second chapter describes the interment:
There were ten chimes for the tenth hour. On the first stroke we began to ease the coffin downwards, and then, with each plangent repetition, it descended further, until, on the final lingering peal, it silently touched the earth. Dust to dust.
There is something in the way these two events are synchronised, and in the way the form of the sentences echoes the action as if to offer a further level of synchronicity, which alerts us to the fact that we are not in the presence of an entirely realistic narrative. What this is, if not entirely realism, is harder to say. Symbolism seems too crude a term, and allegory is certainly not right. Let us just say that it is a form in which, though things are described in everyday terms, the occasional straining of narrative credibility does not trouble us; and this is partly because we are made aware of other structural determinants underpinning the plot. The story is told in the past tense, but from the standpoint of a present situated after - but we do not at first know how long after - the main events. In Chapter 3 of the Prologue, the narrator refers to: "...where I still live, for today anyway..." And this may strike us as an odd way of putting it. Would it not be more usual to say, "...for the present," or "...for the time being"? But we soon discover that there is nothing haphazard about this choice: he is actually planning to leave everything behind - the house, the Island, and seemingly everything which by then may prove to have been revealed to us - tomorrow. The trap for the reader has been laid and baited with one word.
At the core of this book is a confrontation between life collapsed into virtual stasis, as represented by the recluse Johnny, and a life of purposeless change and wandering, as represented by the narrator, with the shadowy figure of Johnny’s childhood friend as a sort of intermediary between the two. One review I have seen complained that Hughes had failed to distinguish sufficiently between his characters’ voices; but this objection seems to me misplaced. Just think of the three names: Jonathon, Johnny and Goronwy: as tight a phonetic cluster as you could contrive. There is clearly a sense in which the arguments, though divided for the drama of their exposition, may be understood as taking place within the mind of one person - or equally of all of us. Other events and characters circle around this nucleus to the extent that they have been drawn into its gravitational field and help to drive its progress.
It so happened that I came to this immediately after reading Wood and Stone, John Cowper Powys’s first published novel; and I do not think it is just the occasional fortuitous detail - that both make reference to Browne’s Urne-Burial, or that both hang a significant plot point on the visit of a tatty circus - that leads me to see them as belonging to the same tradition. There is something in the way Powys treats the physical world as perhaps partly mirroring and perhaps partly determining human behaviour, so that he can ascribe the characteristics of the one to the other without any fear of our muttering ‘pathetic fallacy’ under our breaths, which Hughes seems to have inherited. But there is none of Powys’s garrulousness. ‘We were standing in front of the entrance to Bub and Nut’s farm, me beside a rusty gate and Nut beside the huge black wheel of his tractor.’ The gate and the tractor wheel: it’s all we get, and it’s all we need. If Hughes is in the tradition Powys, it is in the sense in which Malone Dies is in the tradition of Ulysses. The intensity and the economy hint at the epic; but the epic here is the externalisation of conflict deep-rooted as a Neanderthal tooth: in effect, whether the past has any claim upon us. At the same time, a seasoning of wryness keeps the inevitable gloom from becoming too oppressive: for example, rusty agricultural machinery looking ‘as useful and functional as a clump of dinosaur bones...’ (but yes, bones are never far away).
I cannot offer any quote to demonstrate the compulsion with which the concerns at the centre of Send My Cold Bones Home spiral outward and outward to engulf us: the ironies, the revelations, the suspicions shockingly exceeded. Even in what at first may appear a digression, when Goronwy begins telling Jon about his own schooldays, the old schoolteacher turns out to embody the now familiar dichotomy between adventure and introversion; and we feel ourselves again in that labyrinth of enclosed, indistinguishable lanes where the novel began. Almost at the end, to cap it all, there is a big speech by the least troubled of the characters - the one farthest in orbit from the centre - which is in essence, though she herself does not realise it, a warning against the seductions of literature, indeed of thought: thus nothing is trustworthy, not even our own act of reading.
Yet, like any book which seriously confronts the abyss at the heart of life, this one finally leaves us enriched, even elated. Had it not been published in Wales, it would surely have received the plaudits it deserves.