*For English review, see language toggle switch*
(suggested) interest age: 12+
(suggested) reading age: 12+
Genre/themes: #Welshhistory #slavery #empathy #fiction
I wonder if Manon Steffan Ros feels the pressure when it comes to publishing day? Especially when you've set the bar as high as Llyfr Glas Nebo. Anyone would have a job beating the success of that novel! However, with 5 Tir na n-Og awards under her belt already, she has proven herself time and again as one of our most popular and skilled authors. Whilst many believe Llyfr Glas Nebo to be her magnum opus, personally I prefer Llechi and Powell (controversial, right?). Sometimes it takes me weeks to plod my way through a novel, but in this case, with Powell it was only a matter of a days.
Elis Powell, a fifteen-year-old boy, has always been very proud of his ancestor and his legacy, and seems more than happy to carry his namesake. He is reminded daily of the enormous contribution of his great great (great?) grandfather to the town – he founded the local hospital and the school. Heck, there’s even a pub named after him!
Although the story begins in Trefair, Wales, much of the book takes place in the States. In fact, I rather enjoyed reading a book that wasn’t set in Wales for a change. The main thread of the story is Elis and his grandfather’s journey to the USA to find out more about the life of the great man who has been a constant presence in their lives in some shape or form. Although their once-in-a-lifetime journey gets off to a promising start, we soon get the impression that things are going to turn sour…
I'm pretty sure I'd be able to recognize Manon Steffan's work with my eyes shut. It’s very unique and identifiable. The relationships between her characters are always her main focus, and she often pays attention to the little things people do or say, whether it's a couple squabbling in public at the airport or those people who give you back-handed compliments. (You know the ones who pretend to be genuine, but you know that they aren’t.)
While the two are on their big adventure learning about the life of the original Elis Powell, new facts emerge, that puts everything they’ve ever believed in doubt. I won't say anything more than that, but one thing’s for sure, they won't be able to think of Elis Powell in the same way again. Their reputation and good name means everything to them, and now, it’s as though the rug’s been pulled from under their feet.
This is not the first time MSR has covered the subject of slavery. In 2018, she was involved in a project at Penrhyn Castle, North Wales, where she produced '12 stories' discussing the history of the castle and it’s links to the plantations in Jamaica. That may have prompted her to write more on the subject, which I don’t think has received enough attention until relatively recently in Wales.
It's only in recent years, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that we’ve started to recognise and accept Wales' part in the cruel and immoral industry. Of course, it's important that we don't ignore the past, but in the same breath, we can't change it either. We have to face up to it and learn from our mistakes if we’re ever to move forward.
As for the historical account of slaves in the story, we only get background information - enough to satisfy the needs of the story, but little else. Some may have liked to see more here. Perhaps a few pages at the back of the book (similar to Gwasg Carreg Gwalch's history books) could have been useful to give more context. Having said that, I think it was a deliberate choice by the author not to say too much about the life and experiences of the slaves, and I can understand that. Manon has already spoken about the topic of cultural appropriation in the ‘Colli’r Plot’ podcast – a discussion well worth listening to. I'm still not sure if I know what the answer is, though.
The novel raises important questions, and makes you think but it never gets preachy. It may make you feel a bit uncomfortable at times, and this is a good thing. It is a very complex topic of discussion, but it needs to be discussed, and so I'm grateful for a novel like this to facilitate a conversation. Similar to the imaginary Elis Powell, statues of controversial individuals such as Henry Morton Stanley, Thomas Picton, Cecil Rhodes and the like are still visible in our communities. Should they be? That’s a debate in itself! Since we can't change history, the only thing we can do is make sure everyone knows all the facts, and accept that some of these individuals have made valuable contributions to our communities, but much of their wealth came from the exploitation of other human beings.
Instead of telling us how and what to think, MSR turns it back on us as readers and asks a very valid and fair question: once you do finally learn all the facts, what are you going to do with that information afterwards? Stay silent and ignore it, or talk about it openly? I think that’s the main point she’s making.