This classic novel was first published in 1939. I hadn’t read it before, although I’d heard of it. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was an autobiography or fiction. It turns out that Llewellyn was actually born in England, to Welsh parents, and that the novel isn’t generally based upon his own experiences. I think that makes it all the more extraordinary because it has an autobiographical tone and a strong sense of community.
The book is narrated by Huw Morgan, who lives with his family in a South Wales coal mining village. Although it was a tough life, even for the moderately well-off Morgans, Huw looks back on those times with nostalgia for the people and places he loved in the Victorian era. However, there is a sense of dread accumulating as the narrative continues, because Huw hints that some awful things are going to happen. There is also the increasing slag heap (waste material from coal mining) on the mountain, which pollutes the environment and threatens to fall on the village. It becomes a metaphor for the tragedies looming in Huw’s life.
You could consider this book a coming of age story, as it begins with Huw a little boy about to start school and ends with him a man. It’s a lot more than that, though. Themes of identity, unions, the small-mindedness of a village, forbidden love, music, nature, honour, faith and courage. The narrative style is lyrical and contains enough Welsh idiom to give you a sense of his speaking voice. Interestingly, the characters are supposed to be speaking Welsh while we are of course reading it in English. Children are not allowed to speak Welsh at school and one of the pivotal points of the plot is a result of that.
An emotional and impressive read. A film adaptation was released in 1941.
This edition published by Penguin, 2001.