REBECCA is still a name to conjure with in the coastlands and countryside of West Wales. The inquest continues into the riots of 1839-44 which bear that name, and the jury is still out on who did what, when, and why.
So the scene is set for this beguiling and finely crafted novel that is guaranteed to galvanise reading groups and individual page-turners alike.
Rebecca was not a person. Rebecca was the name given to a movement initially against the imposition of tolls penalising the movement of livestock and goods, but also targeting landowners, gentry, and Anglican clergy, who exacted tithes from a predominantly Nonconformist population. Probably named after Rebekah, who, in Genesis, is urged to “let thy seed possess the gate of those who hate them”, they ceremoniously destroyed toll gates and took a lively and sometimes aggressive interest in the behaviour of young women and those who exploited them.
It is this latter tendency that gave Alis Hawkins the idea for this novel, the first in a series featuring the Teifi Valley Coroner.
Seven years after the riots, the remains of Margaret Jones, a housemaid in the employ of a despised landowner, is found on his estate. The first of the six parts is devoted to a lively account of the inquest, held in the ballroom of a market-town hotel. The colourful range of witnesses and hecklers adds spice to the proceedings, which end with a verdict that no one saw coming.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, a young barrister who has been forced home from London by encroaching blindness (none so blind?), has personal reasons to be alarmed by the discovery of Margaret’s skeletal remains, and is determined to challenge the verdict. The fact that along with her remains are those of a baby — newborn, or not yet born — adds to the mystery that Harry, and his no-less-implicated clerk John, set out to solve.
Will they regret not simply letting the matter rest? Why shouldn’t the odious landowner William Williams be left to carry the can — and what part might Rebecca have played in the death of Margaret and her child, and the subsequent inquest verdict?
No credit (author’s own photo)View of the lower Teifi valley from Alis Hawkins’s childhood home
Certainly, the investigation proves to be far from straightforward, throwing up more questions than answers. Here, Hawkins subtly invokes the internal tensions in a small rural community, as past events resurface and dark secrets lurk in the shadows.
Those familiar with the fallout from the Troubles in Northern Ireland know only too well how old wounds continue to fester, suspicions still surface from time to time, and longstanding loyalties are put under strain. Significantly, inquests into deaths that occurred during those troubles continue to act as catalysts for the revival of long-suppressed animosities and accusations of blame.
So, likewise, a decade after the Rebecca riots, tensions are ratcheted ever higher as we wonder whether Harry and John have bitten off more than they can chew. Indeed, might the biter end up being bitten?
Historical novels always run the risk of caricature, so that characters fit our preconceived stereotypical images of what squires, solicitors, blacksmiths, and clergy must have been like in “ye olden days”. But Hawkins skilfully avoids this trap: a succession of suspects, witnesses, and bystanders are given distinctive identities and rounded personalities. So far, so convincing.
It is when the investigation follows the trail of the Unitarian minister and Rebecca leader from Wales to the east of England that startling revelations come thick and fast. Here, the plot threatens to test the limits of plausibility. But suffice it to say that gender identity in 19th-century Unitarianism adds a touch of irony to the cross-dressing inclinations of the Rebecca rioters.
Then, once back home, the extent to which Harry and John have more than a passing acquaintance with Margaret’s death both illumines and complicates the investigation. There are many tantalising twists and turns before the truth is revealed — and we are left to wonder whether the culprit will ever have his or her day in court.
Harry’s deteriorating eyesight is a potent metaphor. Sometimes, his peripheral vision means that he sees out of the corner of his eye what others miss — no more than him do they see what is hidden in plain sight. His other faculties, however, have become sharper as his sight has weakened, so that, as he says, “Though I cannot see properly, I am far from blind.”
This well-told tale makes full use of the social, linguistic, and class divisions that existed in remote Welsh communities in the 18th century, at a time when turning a blind eye to cruel injustices might not be an option for much longer.
As with all good crime novels, clues about whodunnit are laid throughout. But spotting them is not so easy. Perhaps there really are none so blind as those who will not see.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
None So Blind by Alis Hawkins is published by the Dome Press at £8.99; 978-1-912534-03-6.
NONE SO BLIND — SOME QUESTIONS
- In what ways does inequality interfere with truth and genuine friendship in the novel? Are there examples of successful cross-class relationships?
- Why do you think that mob justice is so prevalent in this period? Is its impact purely positive or negative?
- There is something of a divide between the Unitarian Chapel community and the Church. Why is this, do you think? What part does religion play in the events of the novel?
- Women, particularly servant women, live a precarious life in the novel. Are there any examples of women who manage to exert power? How do they do this?
- In what ways does Harry’s encroaching blindness help him to “see”?
- ”Men act; ladies remain composed.” Is that true within this novel?
- What is the impact of cross-dressing in the novel?
- What did you make of the reveal? Did it change the way in which you thought of Nathaniel’s earlier violence?
- To whom does the title refer? Who is it that “will not see”?
- How important is language in the novel? For example, how do characters use Welsh or English to make political points?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 September, we will print extra information about our next book, The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes. It is published by MacLehose Press at £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-857-05853-9. Please note that this title replaces the book previously listed for September, E.E.G., by Daša Drndic.
The Photographer at Sixteen is the story of George Szirtes’s mother, Magda, a Holocaust concentration-camp survivor and later refugee after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Her death came at the age of 51, in 1975, in an ambulance, after a suicide attempt. At this point, her sons knew very little of her past. In this lyrical and haunting memoir, written more than four decades later, Szirtes moves backwards through her life from her final days to her childhood, in a moving journey towards understanding of his mother and of his family’s past.
Born in Budapest in 1948, George Szirtes moved from Hungary to Britain as a refugee in 1956. He studied painting at Harrow School of Art and at Leeds College of Art and Design, before turning to poetry after attending seminars run by the poet Martin Bell. The Slant Door, his first of many collections of poems, won the Faber Prize in 1979. Among other awards, he has since been awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize for his poetry collection Reel (2004), and the Man Booker International Prize for his translations of László Krasznahorkai (2015). Szirtes lives in Norfolk with his wife, the artist Clarissa Upchurch.
Books for the next two months:
October: Plainsong by Kent Haruf
November: Walk Humbly by Samuel Wells