It’s always a pleasure to feature books from Honno Welsh Women’s Press, and today I’m delighted to be joining the blog tour for The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies), published on 19 September 2019, available in paperback and for kindle. My thanks to Julia Forster for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my reading copy (I do hope to catch up with this one later).
“A moving, quirky, and gorgeously written meditation on the haunting afterlife of the objects we leave behind. There is a lapidary beauty hidden in almost every sentence.” Tristan Hughes
Mari supplements her modest trade as a market stall holder with the wares she acquires from clearing the houses of the dead. She lives alone in a tiny cottage by the shore, apart from a monkey that she keeps in a cage, surrounding herself with the lives of others, combing through letters she has gleaned, putting up photographs of strangers on her small mantelpiece.
But Mari is looking for something beyond saleable goods for her stall. As she works on cutting a perfect emerald, she inches closer to a discovery that will transform her life and throw her relationships with old friends into relief. To move forward she must shed her life of things past and start again. How she does so is both surprising and shocking…
As I have no review to share today, I’m pleased to welcome Gwen Davies, the book’s translator, with a guest post entitled She Sells Sea Shells: Dressing Up the Shoreline…
What’s to recommend this novel of envy and dressing up? A close-up look at a beach and some vintage gowns reveals all. By no means are we talking ‘up-lit’ – it’s a dark tale, and talks of losing loved ones and stealing other people’s. Its protagonist, Mari, is her own worst enemy. But The Jeweller will uplift you. Suffused by five senses, its setting is a beautiful west Wales coastline, where a ‘low tide had peeled off a mile-long paring of soft sand all along the coastline.’ And it is peopled with characters that care for each other. Here is an intricate artefact, like the miniature grandfather clock Mari’s friend Gwyn conjures from a watch and twelve tiny healing gemstones (turquoise for sailors), with a ‘fingernail face, its figures glowing with possibility’. Our lives need such craft.
Small-time emerald-cutter Mari lives with a cat and a monkey. Opposite, over the stile from her cottage, is the path down to the beach. She fears the Atlantic and respects it. From opening chapters, those waters are first associated, along with a gemstone, with treachery: ‘Its blue-green was deceptively deep like the sea; she could see fleets out there, sunk in its watery hall of mirrors.’ Mari and her friend Mo give each other space. But the novel shows the danger released when other boundaries are over-run. Indeed, both trespass for a (part-time) living: clearing houses. The dead cannot protect their property or possessions. The temptation is acute to steal cash from a sewn-up pocket or letters from a drawer. Of the pair, Mari is most likely to succumb. She is looking for someone, and for herself, so she tries on others’ stories for size.
The view from Mari’s house is of seascape, framed by shore- and sky-line. These boundaries demark transition, from earth to water and life to death. From death to possible afterlife. Further connections between the sea and jewels develop. But so strongly outlined is that west-facing bay with its recurring iconic sunsets that I was led astray in an early translation draft. I strained for an image of the sun held like a ruby by the skyline (‘The sun slipped off the horizon’s setting’), when what was needed was a simpler, necklace, fastening: ‘The world slipped from day’s clasp.’ That final version of the phrase is closer both to the Welsh and a sense of that final frontier between world and horizon.
While we were working on my adaptation of her previous, bestselling and prizewinning Martha, Jack and Shanco, Caryl mentioned a woman who went on to establish her own upcycling label, Wench (and Mench menswear). The author introduced me to this trendy activity that her own character, Mari (along with countless other thrift-conscious ladies of a certain age) had been doing for years. When I got a taste for zigzag stitch, the world of tailoring – introduced to me by Caryl – enriched my phrasing, as it had inspired her original concepts and imagery.
Manoeuvring her beach stage-set, the author introduces a variety of textile-, clothes- and sewing-related themes which maintain a continuity link to Mari’s market-stall, where she sells vintage costumes as well as jewellery. In chapter eight alone, the horizon is hidden by ‘delicate mist – a lace hemming’, a cormorant stands ‘in widower’s weeds’, thoughts are ‘wispy, like a wedding veil’ and troubles will ‘come out in the wash’. Later, my version makes the sea dressier, so that it sports ‘azure silk’ with ‘a mermaid’s tail of snowy frills sashaying to and fro’. Elsewhere, I go bolder, with a ‘massacre of prom frock’ evoked by the lurid dead starfish washed up by Caryl’s waves.
As with many on the breadline, for Mari, work and vocation leach. When home, as often as she’s shaping the perfect emerald, she’ll be nose-deep, unpicking the seam of a nightie. Her walls are lined with wedding gowns. She mends the collar of a pink party frock with a ‘handspan’ waist, while outside, dresses are ‘alive on the line as though their new owners were dancing in them.’ Mari is as much seamstress as jeweller. Either way, the symbolism of both (much more than ornamental) crafts inhabit her cottage-world – framed by sea and sky – as much as the market.
Along with Caryl’s original, my translation aims to trace those parallels between garments and shoreline. To prove how both a beribboned neckline and pretty wavelets may decorate and simultaneously obscure some momentous boundaries. Those between silk and skin, skin and guts, shimmer and plunge.
The Jeweller, perched on its stile at our country’s western rim, ultimately plumps for that exciting unknown world on the far side. Gwyn’s tiny clock ticks on in a new place where optimism resides: ‘Trembling for a few unmarked seconds between time zones, the arms jerked suddenly forward.’
About the author
Caryl Lewis has published eleven Welsh-language books for adults, three novels for young adults and thirteen children’s books. Her novel Martha, Jac a Sianco (Y Lolfa, 2004), won Wales Book of the Year in 2005. Caryl wrote the script for a film based on Martha, Jac a Sianco, which won the Atlantis Prize at the 2009 Moondance Festival. Her television credits include adapting Welsh-language scripts for the acclaimed crime series Y Gwyll / Hinterland.
About the translator
Gwen Davies grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in West Yorkshire. She has translated into English the Welsh-language novels of Caryl Lewis, published as Martha, Jack and Shanco (Parthian, 2007) and The Jeweller and is co-translator, with the author, of Robin Llywelyn’s novel, published as White Star by Parthian in 2003. She is the editor of Sing, Sorrow, Sorrow: Dark and Chilling Tales (Seren, 2010). Gwen has edited the literary journal, New Welsh Review, since 2011. She lives in Aberystwyth with her family.