A comedy of errors in rural Wales evolves into a dark tale of family secrets in this very accomplished debut.
Picture a pretty girl in a yellow dress, presiding over a picnic on a spring day. It’s enough to scramble a fellow’s brains, and so, brains duly scrambled, Wilfred Price proposes to Grace Reece, who accepts in a flash. Moments later, Wilfred is appalled by his folly. The 27-year-old undertaker barely knows the doctor’s daughter, though they have grown up together in the small town of Narberth, Pembrokeshire, where it’s now 1924. Blame it on his inexperience with the ladies; Wilfred is still a virgin. His subsequent retraction falls on deaf ears. On another front, he’s having better luck. Flora lives with her mother in a nearby town; her father has died suddenly, and Wilfred has arranged the funeral. Despite the awkward circumstances, their strong mutual attraction leads to a wordless tryst, tender but not carnal, in a deserted seaside cottage. Meanwhile, Grace is becoming desperate: She’s pregnant. Her suppressed memory of being raped surfaces, but Grace cannot divulge the identity of the rapist to her cold, forbidding parents. After considering suicide, she simply tells her father she’s pregnant, and the doctor, assuming Wilfred’s guilt, bullies the young man into a joyless civil ceremony. If he denies paternity, no one will believe him, his business will fail, and he will be forced to leave town without his widowed gravedigger father, an impossibility, for the two are devoted to each other. Jones has devised her trap skillfully. Though the novel’s first, pre-marriage half dawdles, and the Wilfred/Flora relationship is too gauzy, the second half is exceptionally strong. Wilfred and Grace discover reserves of courage even as their world grows bleak.
From the vagaries of desire, through parental love and its absence, to small-town morality, the British author has put together a thematically rich book in a perfectly rendered time and place.