Thursday, 12 January 2012

Luggage from Elsewhere by Aneurin Gareth Thomas book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 31st March 2007

A slice of Welsh life
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Luggage from Elsewhere
By Aneurin Gareth Thomas
Parthian, 281 pp, 9.99 pounds

"I was born in Year Seventeen of the Nuclear Age," the unnamed narrator says at the start of Luggage from Elsewhere, the first novel by Aneurin Gareth Thomas.

This reviewer was born in Britain in the same year, making this story of a boy's childhood and adolescence in South Wales during the 1960s and '70s especially resonant.

Not that it's necessary to have grown up at that time or, indeed, to have lived in Britain to enjoy this coming-of-age tale that invites readers into a world that is occasionally brutal and often very engaging.

The protagonist paints a picture of his family as one that, while far from perfect, works together to tackle whatever obstacles they meet, whether unavoidable or self-inflicted.

The core of the novel, however, follows his group of friends as they stumble through their formative years in Gorseinon, a working-class area of Swansea, from the ages of 15 to 20.

Their youthfully enthusiastic exploits are interspersed with flashbacks from the narrator's childhood that give insights to a relatively innocent period of his life.

Throughout, actual historical events add a touch of reality to proceedings, though some readers might find the lack of a chronological narrative, with events from 1966 sandwiched between those from 1977 and 1970, slightly disjointed.

Though it helps to be aware of certain events from the time, you certainly won't feel the need to constantly refer to a social history of Britain to follow the plot.

In one reference, the 4-year-old narrator, having only just been taught to count into double-digit figures, is unable to grasp the number 116, until his father explains, "It's like you, that makes one, see, and Little Johnny [the narrator's friend], that makes two, and then a hundred and fourteen more."

You would be hard-pressed to find a more poignant way to describe the number of children who died in the real-life Aberfan disaster, when a colliery slag heap collapsed and engulfed a primary school in the autumn of 1966.

Thirteen years later, tragedy revisits the protagonist and his friends more than once, in seemingly avoidable circumstances that are all too common among teenagers.

Like a champion boxer from the Welsh valleys, Thomas does not pull any punches when describing the grim realities of life, such as violent police questioning of a suspect, or the 1974 coal miners' strike that resulted in then British Prime Minister Edward Heath getting a rude answer from the electorate when he asked of them, "Who runs Britain, the government or the miners?" They voted him out.

Yet Luggage from Elsewhere is far from negative. Will, the narrator's best friend, is a positive force through the novel and acts as a counterpoint to the darker elements that this group of opportunists encounter in their teenage years.

As the narrator reaches his late teens, he moves in with his girlfriend and becomes involved in a reactionary, though ultimately toothless, Welsh nationalist group formed by him and his friends, called Bore Coch (Red Morning) whose activities, in a pre-9/11 world, come across as petty vandalism rather than extremist terrorism.

There are moments of humor in the novel, too. When the narrator accompanies his brother, Huw, on a trip to mid-Wales on Huw's motorbike, he ends up in a hippy commune, discussing Buddhism with a girl called Butterfly, who asks, "Can you do mantra chants in Welsh?"

The narrator replies, "Om is wm [oom], I guess," conjuring up an image that is far removed from the mystical religious practices of deepest Tibet.

Thomas evokes the trials and tribulations of growing up in a working-class family in South Wales with wit and imagination, and his bittersweet prose promises much for the future.

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