In between the chaos of university life, holidays can be the only time in which we can pretty much read what we like. With time at a premium, it is sometimes a challenge to pick the right book for the right time. This Christmas, I was fortunate enough to spot Raymond William’s classic novel, Border Country, in my local Oxfam. Published in 1960 and recently re-issued in Parthian’s Library of Wales series, this book thoroughly deserves to be awarded a second lease of life.
Border Country explores the relationship between Matthew Price, a young academic in London, and his homeland in rural South-East Wales. Like many of us students, Matthew’s education and work has taken him away from his family and friends. When news of his father’s ill health arrives, Matthew is rushed back to a place and a community that still commands a significant emotional hold over him. With a wife and two boys in London, Matthew’s discomfort at being back in Wales reveals that there is much about this relationship between man and land that has yet to be resolved.
In his foreword to the 2006 edition, Dai Smith writes that his first reading of the novel ‘crackled with the excitement of a discovery I had somehow known all along’, and I admit that I experienced a similar sensation myself. Though we may not catch up with everyone we grew up with when we return home, the memory of their presence can be evoked by non-human reminders, such as driving past one’s school, or an old favourite pub. Returning home over the holidays, this is a theme that has been playing on my mind once again. How do we square the past and present versions of ourselves? Do we still fit in here? Did we ever? These are a few of the questions that Matthew asks over the course of the novel.
Matthew’s awareness of the gulf between his working class upbringing and his career in academia niggles at him like a knot in his back, and its resolution at the end of the book is one of the most satisfying aspects of this novel’s structure. The dominance of two male protagonists – Matthew and his father, Harry – does not hamper a thoughtful portrayal of a few important female characters. Matthew’s wife is sharp enough to catch the change in her husband’s voice when he calls from the fictive village of Glynmawr, and the formidable Mrs Hybart is real enough to remind me of some half a dozen old ladies that I knew in my childhood. A native of the border village of Pandy and himself a grammar school success story, it is not surprising that Williams evokes Glynmawr and its surroundings with such awesome clarity.
As the narrative moves between the Price family in their past and their present, we see their hopes evolve and their priorities change, yet perhaps what is most striking about this novel is the feeling that the community of Glynmawr is renewing itself over and over again. For some, like Matthew’s childhood friend Eira, the familiarity of that renewal represents comfort and security. As Matthew hacks his way through a trickier path to the same destination, I could not avoid reflecting on my own attitudes toward my homeland. Moving, evocative, and brilliantly restrained, this novel is a reminder that we must sometimes be at peace with our people before we can be at peace with ourselves.