Top positive review
Witty and thoughtful
on 31 May 2015
The author’s fifth book is set in rural Wales and centres on Lydia, a writer, who is living in an isolated cottage, Ty Fach, whilst recovering from a failed relationship. In a weak moment she has invited an acquaintance, Betty [the kind of person ‘who would have liked to go round India on a bicycle in an orange robe looking for an Enlightened One.’], to accompany her.
The other characters are locals, a farmer, Hywel, his wife, Elizabeth, and brother, Beuno, who is studying for the church, Dr Wyn, Mr and Mrs Molesworth, a retired couple who have moved to the area and own the local gift shop, and their daughter, April. There is also Hywel’s and Elizabeth’s mentally-impaired daughter, Angharad, whose contribution to the book, as a disembodied entity, is presented in italics and which I could have done without. Although the list of characters is too close to that of a contemporary Brian Rix farce, the writing manages to liberate them from caricature.
The book’s title refers to the noises that Lydia repeatedly hears in the cottage and which may be imagined or the result of her heightened sensitivity to an insubstantial other world. The author’s strength lies in her ability to create characters that magnify human frailties but still engage the reader’s understanding.
Relationships, between Lydia and Betty, the doctor and Elizabeth [and anyone else female], Betty and Beuno, and Lydia and her ex-boyfriend, largely revealed through the former’s thoughts, lie at the heart of the book. The relationship between the two women changes as Lydia, who is an intensely difficult person to deal with [being ‘one of those women who find something contaminating in ugliness and prefer to mingle only with those who are at least as attractive as themselves.’] and is more bothered about the break-up of her recent relationship than she can admits to Betty or herself, comes to appreciate the care and empathy that her friend is offering. Several characters teeter on the edge of romance but the author refuses to take them down such an easy route and jealousies and ardent discussions about the role of the church and the nature of evil [Lydia refers to the Devil as ‘Stan’] in contemporary times ensue.
Another common element is dissatisfaction – the doctor would have liked to practice away from home but was too much under his mother’s thumb, Elizabeth is dissatisfied with her marriage and life, whilst Beuno is not satisfied with his teachers’ explanations of the role of the church. Lydia is dissatisfied with everyone, but especially herself.
The novella would be slight indeed, there is very little in the way of a formal plot, were it not for the author’s pointed observations, dialogue and witty insights into what Lydia is thinking. Many of the exchanges are between Betty and Lydia at Ty Bach but set pieces, including a dinner party, picnic, local agricultural fair and funeral, serve to broaden the perspective. Invited to a dinner party by Elizabeth, Lydia wears a scarlet silk dress that makes a statement to the horny doctor ‘This is my best frock. If you lay a finger on me, you little squirt, you’ll crease it, and if you do I’ll kill you.’ and to the self-important Mrs Molesworth ‘This frock is more chic and expensive than anything which you possess, and it makes you look a provincial old trollop in your mock Chanel suit.’
Published in 1985 it contains references to Angharad that now seem very dated but which, very likely, would have been uttered within an isolated valley environment.
On the final page, Lydia leaves in high spirits for London with little in her life resolved but planning that 'As soon as she got back to London she would give a party and have a good laugh'. Ellis leaves it to the reader to imagine what comes next. This is a short book that has many sentences that are worth re-reading and thinking about.