Thursday, November 19, 2020

Broken Ghost - Niall Griffiths, Wales Book of the Year

Broken Ghost - Wales Book of the Year
Wales Book of The Year

It's twenty years since the publication of Niall Griffiths' first book, Grits. I remember reading it in a weekend, being blown away by the rawness of the words, the truth to power in the voices, the refusal to soften language or sweeten its pill... Six novels later Griffiths returns to similar themes and narrative structure with Broken Ghost - surely, the deserved winner of Wales Book of the Year.

In truth, Grits isn't a novel in the traditional sense - more a collection of interrelated stories, centred on the drug and rave culture of Nineties Aberystwyth.  Inevitably, it was compared to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and it's he who again provides the front cover puff, describing Griffiths as `a magnificently gifted writer'.

Of that, there's no doubt. There are passages in Broken Ghost that left me metaphorically breathless, reading and rereading them to catch the rhythm of the words, often in long extended sentences reminiscent of Cormac Mcarthy. And like McCarthy, Griffiths writes compellingly of landscape and place, connecting them to the forces at play with an intangible, gravitational pull.

Not that the landscape or even the plot is really the point of the book. Ostensibly, the story is of three people who witness a vision at a lake in the hills above Aberystwyth - and of the tumult of events which lead them to return for the tale's apocalyptic conclusion. But if that were all it was, Broken Ghost wouldn't be the tour de force it is. 

For the real story lies in the minds of the three central characters, each of whom exists on the edge of society: disconnected, disadvantaged, despairing almost at the prospect of the 'normality' of lives lived more like mine - and probably yours.  Emma, Adam and Cowley respectively find their release - if not redemption - through sex, drugs and violence. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. 

And its language is unforgiving too. Part written in dialect, always unremitting in its force, these are thoughts and words unfiltered by polite sobriety. Consider what follows as a trigger warning, for Griffiths would no more type an asterisk to soften the word c**t as he'd use manhood in place of prick or foursome in the stead of his vivid description of a husband wanking as his wife is willingly shagged every which way by two of his best mates. You no doubt get the gist.

And that's just the sex. Griffiths spares us no less detail of drink, drugs, violence... and their aftermath. At times I wondered if all this was deliberate - and of course, it is - in a sense gratuitously so, because holding back wouldn't be so real, wouldn't have the power,.. wouldn't be true to anyone who's been on the end of a fist, a bottle or needle.

But then, what do I know?  For this is a world away from the life I lead - a tee-total, non-smoking, monogamous abhorrer of laddish banter, let alone thuggery. Is my admiration of Griffiths' writing some sort of voyeurism, or a repressed disclaiming of a comfortable, quasi-intellectual life?  Leave aside the mountains, and a reasonable question of myself, is why do these words speak so directly to me?

And I think the answer is that they speak for all of us. Our lives - and our natures - are nearer the edge than we like to think. We navigate the network of chance and possibility by means of a tension that's as intricately constructed - and as easily broken - as a spider's web. Griffiths' characters - in their uncompromised exaggeration - are a mirror to what might have been - and perhaps in our darker moments, to what might still be.

But I sense there's more to their resonance than a fear of falling or the worry that we're one short step from brutality. Emma, Adam and Cowley may be damaged and disconnected, but in so being, they see others through a lens that magnifies the vanities, injustices and ultimately, the absurdity of our human condition. It's not so much that their perspectives amount to any greater truth, as that the clarity of their attentions is uncomfortably familiar. We don't need to be like these people to relate to their abandon, or indeed envy their elation - however temporary that may be - in living true to their natures. 

My favourite author - and the only one whose books I've read multiple times - is Jean Rhys. Her thinly fictionalised novels portray the faltering life of an 'inconvenient' mistress exiled to Paris, the slow loss of youth, the taking of comfort in drink and men... Like Griffiths, Rhys lays bare our hypocrisies and willful deceptions - in her case, writing with precise understatement rather than raging profanity.  But the parallels are there: the crossing of lines, the erosion of hope... the inevitable gravity of it all... 

To compare Broken Ghost to novels written in the Thirties may be unconventional, but I'd argue that its themes, though rooted in today's Wales, are of a seed that's more universal in time and place. Indeed, my only substantive criticism is that some of Griffiths' contemporary tropes - the references to Brexit; the abusing catholic priest - felt somewhat obvious; as if shoehorned in for the purposes of polemic. A few of the plot lines too were rather neatly convenient.

But these are minor gripes. For the true mark of a story - like the legacy of all great fiction - lies not in its unravelling, but in how it leaves the reader. In my case, as blown away as ever... Griffiths is the finest writer of fiction in Wales - and his words deserve more attention.

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