Review: The Water-castle by Brenda Chamberlain

A Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle marks the centenary of the renowned Welsh writer and artist

The Water-castle, first published in 1964, is available to buy in a new centenary edition by the Library of Wales for £8.99

“This is a work poised suggestively between a journal and a novel, autobiography and fiction, romance and political documentary, Welsh and European spaces, West and East, island and mainland selves.” Damian Walford Davies

I was introduced to the works of Brenda Chamberlain two weeks ago at the Cardiff Literary Salon. After an insightful and reflective talk on The Water-castle by Professor Damian Walford Davies, said book was handed to me – along with a request to review it.

So, without further ado …

Firstly, allow me to register mild confusion. The book simply evades categorisation. Is it a journal or a novel? Is it autobiographical or fictitious? These questions floated around my mind as I read it and remain unanswered now that I have finished it. (It seems, though, that I am in good company; see above for the verdict of Walford Davies himself).

Perplexity aside, however, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. It charts the account of a Welsh poet and artist, Elizabeth Greatorex, who travels to the wintery landscape of Westphalia with her husband to meet her former lover, Klaus.

Set in the 1950s, Elizabeth and her husband arrive in the newly-divided Europe from their home on a remote Welsh island. Not only are physical borders being remapped, but Elizabeth’s relationship with both her husband and her past are thrown into question.

A great deal of suppressed, raw emotion is buried beneath the often matter-of-fact tone (in keeping, I presume, with the journalistic form of the book). Chamberlain writes with what I would call a “light” touch; sentences are short and precise and the narrative moves fluidly from one scene to the next.

The Water-castle is pock-marked with painstakingly vivid descriptions, giving an incredible sense of place. The characters, though, are less rigidly defined and often more difficult to access. The complex web of relationships generates a sense of gentle intrigue which certainly served to keep my interest lively throughout.

Further information

Brenda Chamberlain was born in Bangor in 1912. She was an artist, as well as a writer of poetry and prose. To mark her centenary, Parthian is publishing a series of works by and about Chamberlain, including a Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle for £8.99. The Water-castle was first published in 1964. Chamberlain died in 1971.

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