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Niall Griffiths: Sheepshagger

This novel follows on from Grits, Griffiths’ previous novel, and tells the tale of the same cast of characters, only this time the focus is on Ianto, the strange, solitary outsider. At the start of the book, we learn that a) he is dead and b) he was a murderer. It is only during the course of the book that we learn how and why. Most of the book tells us how Ianto became the way he is. He was a solitary child, speaking Welsh, living with his grandmother on an isolated Welsh hill. What we learn of the child Ianto is his connection with the earth, his attachment to the Welsh soil. The one traumatic event of his early life occurs when a stray pedophile finds him, assaults him, fellatios him and then bites off the end of his penis, when he won’t play along. Partially because of this, he has never had a sexual relationship with a woman, though he lusts after Gwenno and she is sympathetic to him.

Now, as an adult, he is bitter because of what happened to him but also because his grandmother’s land has been acquired by an English family who use it as second home, while he sleeps where he can. (He dreams of revenge and he and his friends do take their revenge on another English family.) He lives the life of a derelict, doing casual work, taking drugs like his friends, drinking, not saying or doing much of anything. His best friend is the psychopath Roger. When Roger – inevitably – is killed, trying to fight too many people at once, Ianto takes it very badly. He comes across an English couple while walking on the hills and brutally kills them and then rapes the dead woman. This is his undoing, as his friends find out and kill him.

In the meantime, Griffiths has given us a portrait of a thoroughly unsympathetic character, yet managed to describe him in sympathetic terms, as a wild Welsh man, who clearly does not fit in with the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first century. His attachment to nature and the earth, his pro-Welsh and anti-English attitude, mirrored by many of his friends, as well as his essential naivety and innocence (in the way a wild animal is innocent in its killing) make him a character that, like Gwenno, we can sympathise with, if not love.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Jonathan Cape