Russell Celyn Jones: An Interference of Light
Much of the novel is set in the Welsh village of Sharon in 1937-9. The main characters work in a slate quarry. Sal Gravano is the father. We see him at the beginning, jumping a ship when it was foundering off the Welsh coast and getting to land on a surfboard he had picked up on his travels. He has two sons, Jacob and Paul. All three work in the quarry. However, the family is ruled by mother Rebekah, who collects the men’s wages. There is also a daughter, Leah, who has a baby but there is no apparent father around any more. We will later meet him.
The novel is narrated by Aaron Lewis. Aaron comes from the United States, though his parents were from this part of Wales. He had worked as a miner in the United States but has now come to Wales. He lodges with the Gravanos. We learn that he is, in fact, employed by the Pinkerton agency to spy on the miners, not so much to learn about labour agitation but to learn about how the miners seem to be able to identify the best quality slate. We only learn at the end and the clue is in the title.
Slate quarrying is badly paid. The way to success is to identify an area where the slate is of good quality – not always apparent. You then buy this area and mine it, getting paid both by quantity and quality of the slate. The men, not surprisingly, do not have a good relationship with management. The mine is owned by Lord Elusen. (Elusen is a Welsh word meaning charity.) He feels that he and his family have done a lot for the community, as they had nothing till his family bought and developed the mine and now they have not only jobs but he has built houses and even a hospital. Indeed, he thinks that they owe him something. He complains about the men bribing his agents and foremen, about the days off they took for harvest and funerals, and about trying to form a union. He says of them Then you will know they are an idle people if given the chance. Like the African. Charming but lazy. Naturally, the men do not entirely share this view.
Things become awkward when the way the slate is quarried is dramatically changed, by appointing an overall contractor, instead of all the men working for themselves by identifying a suitable seam. There is violence towards the contractor and his family and the men vote to strike, which they do. The men get money from the union and even from abroad but the dispute is bitter, particularly when armed police and then soldiers are called in. People start leaving the area to look for other work.
We are following Aaron and the Gravanos. Paul Gravano is at the forefront of the dispute and is backed by his brother and, initially, his father. However, eventually, some of the men go back to work, including Sal Gravano, causing a huge disruption in the family. On the face of it, Aaron is supporting the strike but, is, in fact, feeding some information to Lord Elusen. The community becomes more and more divided.
While this is going on, we are also following events in 1959, twenty years years later. Aaron had clearly returned to the United States but was now back for a visit. We later learn that he felt that he needed a break from Pinkerton work. Paul is now a widower, living alone with his son Granmor. Sharon is devastated. There are abandoned houses, the slate mine has long since closed (because of completion from abroad) and many people have left. There is one entrepreneur who has moved into the town: Butlins. Butlins was (and still is, to some degree) a chain of holiday camps, where all entertainment is included in the price and where you are obliged to be happy and have fun. Granmor works there. However, it is clear that Sharon and Paul have never recovered from the Great Strike. This land they once called the land of the White Gloves is now the devil’s pride and joy. Two millennia in the making, two years to destroy. Aaron and Granmor become close during Aaron’s visit.
The strike and its effect on both sides and, in particular, its effect on the individual Gravanos and seeing what happened twenty years later are the key parts of the book, However, there is also the issue of Aaron. He seems essentially decent, yet not only does he work for a detective agency and thence for the owner of the mine, but he blatantly betrays his hosts who are very good to him, while seeming to have no or, at least, very few qualms about doing so. He seems sympathetic towards the strike and towards Paul, and he even physically attacks the mine manager and later attacks a false preacher, all the while reporting back to Lord Elusen. I have to admit that I find this inconsistency unconvincing and the weak link of the book.
I would add one sub-theme that does occur, namely man’s relationship with nature. At the very beginning, when Sal jumps ship, we sea how he effectively conquers the sea. This will be taken up later by Granmor, who is a keen surfer (and surfing is where Aaron first meets him.) That’s why I like the sea. The sea is the wilderness. And there is no history in the wilderness. The future is the next wave coming in, Glanmor comments. we also see this when Paul takes Glanmor out walking and they climb the mountain and look back at Sharon, which looks minuscule compared to the majesty of its natural surroundings.
For the rich, however, nature is about grouse hunting. That’s what civilised about the English. The way they treat their animals like children. Before they eat them.
Despite the issue of Aaron’s seeming lack of conscience, this is still a very fine book, as Celyn Jones gets into the nature of the Welsh and their relationship with religion/God, with nature and, indeed, with work, while having the excellent idea of it all being reported by an outsider, i.e. a detective from the United States, whose roots may be Welsh but whose character is not.
First published 1995 by Viking