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Purefinder Kindle Edition
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"Though they called it mud, everyone in London knew what they were treading on. There were children who remained barefoot throughout the day so that they could get it between their toes. Their only sand was manure"
A child is killed and Purefoy is collared by the enigmatic pseudonymous Murphy as the culprit to be taken to justice. The two then embark on a foot journey across the city which serves to explore 1850's London through their eyes. It is not an easy book to read, Gwalchmi's prose often needs for you to work at it to glean the meaning and occasionally was a little too obscure for this reader. There is not much in the way of plot, being more a development of the two men's relationship and what has brought them both to this time and place. A smorgasboard of odd characters are encountered and interacted with, my favourites being the street gang known as the "Mighty Cabinet Group" because "if you cross them you'll end up in a cabinet". The book is full of cant and slang and language and most notably several dialogues in Welsh (translation is provided) and Gwalchmi is obviously enjoying himself digging in the rich soil of British language.
"London has always been a polyglot. London is where we run to hear new, fantastical imaginings of language; where we wrap ourselves in foreign matter in the knowledge that a cocoon of experience will enable us to lose and warm ourselves until we've wings enough to take our newly communicative selves elsewhere. The City speaks only one language, London speaks with infinite variations."
The journey, highlighting as it does the London poor, is a juxtaposition with today's austerity society, several times the characters speak of what it would be like in 150 years' time. Through it all runs the rivers and the streets which serve as characters on their own.
The back reads "Purefinder is a Gothic-horror historical thriller with a metaphysical edge; a circadian, Dantean exploration of London, loss, and fraternity; mystery, blood, mud, and guts combined; Rabelaisian relief; human tragedy; and the important questions at the heart of any time" and that summation sentence is more in keeping with the text than any I could attempt. This isn't a forgettable book and some of the imagery will stay with me, probably as I had to be wide awake and paying attention whenever I picked up the book.
For those who want more, there is the attraction of the interest in place-names and localities, again recalling Dickens, but also leading towards Joyce and the resonances of Ulysses et al. in the peripatetic plot and the constant wordplay - the latter in turn calling to mind Beckett, notably the absurdity of language and life. One can also hear traces of Dante's Divina Commedia.....
This is writing as it should be: absorbing, demanding, memorable - but accessible.
It’s about all these things, of course, and much more.
Purefinder is an immersive read. It topples you head first in to that ‘living geography’ of London, taking you through its twisted streets – often frightening, sometimes beautiful (discovering the feel of a forest in the heart of Soho), always surprising.
The London Gwalchmai writes is populated with memorable characters. There are women working as prostitutes, labourers and lamp-lighters, Opium dens and Polish men and clients and pimps. It is a violent world but it is also a world of friendship, alliances, and brotherhood.
The relationships between men are important in the novel, and not least the relationship between Purefoy and his father. This is a particularly difficult and heart-breaking part of the story, as Purefoy remembers his father’s mental breakdown precipitated by that other war in Afghanistan. Punctuated with fragments of Welsh language songs and phrases, fragments that reflect the fragmentation of memory, the recollections are frightening and moving.
The shape and sounds of words are important to the novel too. We are reminded how to pronounce words, we are prompted to look at how words look to mean one thing but might mean another. It’s all part of that immersive experience – asking us to take notice of how we are reading as well as what we are reading.
Purefinder is about all of those things in the first paragraph and more. It can be read in many ways and it invites you to explore all those ways. The characterisation is rich, that ‘living geography’ of the city pulls you in, and the political themes and analogies are cleverly drawn.
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