Horla Review (July 2019)

 

‘Poignant, powerful and beautifully bewitching’

THE SOUTH WESTERLIES

by JANE FRASER

Reviewed by SARA GETHIN

THE Gower landscape forms a beguiling backdrop to Jane Fraser’s collection of eighteen short stories The South Westerlies, an impressive debut by a writer with an eye for the unusual.

This Welsh peninsula is a place where tourists flock in summer and day-trippers drive out to on Sundays; surfers chase the perfect wave, while farmers work the land as their ancestors did before them.

Fraser (left) captures all these aspects of her home area, but she also peels back the façade to show the reader the intriguing underbelly of this coastal idyll.

There are many outstanding stories in this darkly delicious collection, and the idea of folklore as a potent force is woven through some of the most memorable.

The ghostly white skull of the Mari Lwyd makes an appearance wassailing on New Year’s Eve. It startles Brinley Taylor, a farmer who ought to be looking forward to his traditional Gower wedding but is instead haunted by a vendetta.

Ghostly

In ‘Just in Case’, Aggie is visited three times by an owl and succumbs to what her husband calls ‘Celtic pessimism’. Unnerved, she remembers how her mother would hurl salt and pepper into the fire to stop the bird from hooting. In the title story, a newly married couple sense demons in their dream sea-side house, and the husband feels slowly usurped by his wife’s ex-partner whose intangible presence is pervading their home.

Celtic

But it is not other-worldly forces alone that create problems for this wide cast of characters. There are disintegrating relationships ‒ an abusive man whose family is living in a caravan where ‘everything is turning to rust’, a daughter-in-law who attempts to make life better for her husband’s doggedly ungrateful father, and a husband who neglects his wife and daughter in his determination to follow a mere hobby.

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And then there is the sea. It adds so much to the life of those that live near it, who view its changes every day, but it also has the power to steal life away. There are moving stories of lost children and parents who watch the tides. Cockle-pickers are a common sight on the beaches around Gower, and their back-breaking work features in ‘The Sands are Singing’, a heart-wrenching story with such an evocative title.

Skill

Fraser draws her characters with great skill and empathy, and each one’s longings and fears feel very real, but the reader who hopes for happy-ever-after endings will find few here. There is, instead, the satisfaction of reading between the lines of these characters’ lives, and just the right amount of space for the reader’s own interpretation and conclusions. And ever-present is the weather ‒ the south-westerly wind, the rain and sometimes sunshine ‒ and the magnificent scenery.

Reputation

Salt Publishing have a reputation for discovering talented new writers like Man Booker shortlisted Alison Moore, and Jane Fraser is an exciting addition to the Salt fold. She writes with quiet assurance and perfect pace, with narratives unfolding in captivating scenes and tension gradually building. It keeps the reader turning the pages, whether familiar with the Gower landscape or not, and her writing is poignant, powerful and beautifully bewitching.

*The South Westerlies is published in paperback (175 pages) by SALT, price £9.99.

Reviewer Sara Gethin’s novel ‘Not Thomas’, published by Honno Press, was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award and The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. She writes for children as Wendy White and won the Tir nan-Og Award in 2014.

**You can read more about Jane Fraser and her writing by clicking here at Horla.