Friday, December 17, 2010

Uncharted by Jon Gower

My favourite Welsh novel in English of 2010 is Uncharted by Jon Gower. Wales doesn’t produce that much fantastical fiction so this is a bit of a treat. Uncharted is a kind of magical realist voyage that starts in Buenos Aires and ends in Wales. Ostensibly it is the story of tango enthusiast Flavia, whose undead body is set afloat in a papier-mache boat.

The novel begins with a superb description of the River Plate flowing through the teeming city of Buenos Aires. Gower uses this almost sexual coming together of river and city as a natural metaphor to signal the novel’s main theme: love.

Myth is another important element in Uncharted. Rather like the halcyon kingfishers who built their nest on the sea and thereafter becalmed it, Flavia’s benign presence appears to resolve personal conflict. A slum kid and his mother’s new boyfriend are reconciled; a childless middle-class Oakland couple adopt a troubled black schoolgirl and find peace.

And then there is the mythologizing of Flavia herself. She and her mysterious voyage become the subject of world attention. At first a cult figure, a whole religion and system of belief is eventually built up around her. Misapprehensions about her origins are incorporated into her legend. Squabbles about dogma occur. It is an amusing satire on how religions are formed and the often sketchy 'history' that underpins them.

When a novel's central character is comatose, possibly even dead, then the author had better be sure to make the world around her as interesting as possible. Gower enlivens his fictive world in a number of ways. By a piling up of facts in an accretion of fascinating detail, for instance. There are authorial pops at contemporary concerns – such as Cardiff’s drinking culture. He also employs numerous asides and anecdotes. The result is a narrative that positively fizzes with erudition and humour.

One of the hardest things for any author to do is write a convincing novel about goodness and love. Jon Gower has managed to achieve this with Uncharted.

*Uncharted is published by Gomer and is available now. It was originally published in Welsh as Dala’r Llanw.