Category Archives: Reviews

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

The Last Hundred Days won the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award.

The Last Hundred Days is Patrick McGuinness’s first novel. Written from the perspective of an unnamed British narrator, it tells the story of the last hundred days of Ceausescu’s communist reign in Romania. Sinister and engrossing in equal measures, the book draws the reader into an odd, secretive world.

Patrick himself lived in Romania from 1985 to 1987. When I asked him if he closely identified his own self with the narrator, he replied in the affirmative. “But none of the really sexy and interesting bits are autobiographical,” he added.

Perhaps it is because he was there that he is able to write with such clear authority and painstaking attention to detail. The world described is one “whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity” and both of these components are fleshed out throughout the narrative.

Past traumas and grievances in the narrator’s own life are pitted expertly against the grim backdrop of Romanian communism. A difficult relationship with a cancer-ridden, tyrannical father reflects the dying days of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Vivid characters spring to life on the pages and add colour to the grey streets of Bucharest: There’s Leo, the dodgy black-marketeer; Trofim, the elderly and erudite Romanian gentleman; Cilea, the sensuous and mysterious daughter of a party apparatchik.

Romania is a recurring theme in Patrick’s writing. The last section of his 2010 volume of poetry, Jilted City, is a set of poems called “City of Lost Walks” by the fictional Romanian poet, Liviu Campanu. I ask why Romania is so important in his writing. He thinks for a moment and then says, “The world I knew there was unlike anything else I’d seen before. It was a pretty traumatic time for me, so I spent quite a lot of time ignoring it and trying to repress it. But 20 years later I sat down and wrote about it – and it came out as a novel.”

Patrick McGuinness is a professor at Oxford University, as well as a poet and novelist

Further information:

The Last Hundred Days has been published by Seren. Not only did it win the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award, but it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award (2011) and longlisted for The Man Booker Prize (2011).

Patrick is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford University. He divides his time between Oxford and his home in Caernarfon. He tells me, after a great deal of thought, that his favourite writer would probably have to be the poet Thom Gunn.

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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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