Following the recent exhibition in Cardiff of artworks inspired by books set in Wales, we explore some of our favourites of these literary masterpieces.
When you think of Wales you might think of sheep, rugby, Welsh cakes and maybe even a big red dragon (yes, it’s a cool flag). But how many people think of the novels inspired by, and set in, the beautiful landscapes of Wales?
The recent Cartographic Imaginaries: Interpreting Literary Atlas exhibition in Cardiff explored just that; it celebrated twelve English language novels set in Wales through a series of commissioned artworks at the Senedd and Pierhead galleries.
Through the illustration of these novel’s themes, the exhibition explored the contribution these stories have made to readers’ understanding of Wales, its history, culture and communities.
Our list of the top five English language novels set in Wales will help you select your next read just in time for St. David’s Day on 1st March!
1. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Recommended by Pam Jones, a bookseller who has worked at Cardiff’s Troutmark Books since it opened over twenty years ago, Under Milk Wood (1954) is set in a small Welsh coastal town and explores the inner lives and dreams of its inhabitants.
Jones describes the novel as clever and says it is one of her favourite books set in Wales.
“It’s very funny, but it’s also quite dark,” she says. “It’s quite believable in a way, even though it goes off into a bit of fantasy.”
This novel which tells the story of a spring day in the fictional fishing village of Llareggub has recently been re-adapted for a film in a 2015 remake.
2. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
Set on a farm in rural Wales, On the Black Hill (1982) is the story of identical twin brothers who never leave home. Lewis wants to leave but Benjamin is forced into the army at the time of World War I. The novel explores the brother’s seemingly unbreakable ties to their land and their community, as well as the social, religious and cultural values of the era.
The farm on which the novel is set is called ‘The Vision’, which is the name of a real farm north of Llanthony, and there is a mountain called the ‘Black Mountain’ on the Welsh-English border, both of which are believed to have been part of the inspiration for the novel’s location.
Chatwin’s novel won the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was subsequently adapted for the stage and made into a film directed by Andrew Grieve.
3. Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones
Written by a Welsh coal miner, socialist politician, author and playwright, Off to Philadelphia in the Morning (1947) tells the story of Welsh composer Joseph Parry’s early career.
Born in Merthyr Tydfil, Parry worked in the local coal mines from the age of nine, until his family emigrated to the United States in the 1850s.
Another of Jones’ recommendations, this novel explores the important social and historical context of life in the industrial Welsh valleys.
4. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
One of the novels in the Cartographic Imaginaries exhibition, The Hiding Place (2017) is set in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the 1960s. Now Cardiff Bay, the regeneration of Tiger Bay in the 1990s was recognised as one of the most ambitious regeneration projects in Europe.
This novel explores the poverty stricken area of Tiger Bay, with its crumbling buildings and rundown cafés, through the story of Dolores, the youngest of six daughters, whose father gambles and loses everything on a bet that she is a boy.
The Hiding Place is Azzopardi’s debut novel and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000.
5. The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country by Jan Morris
Jones describes Jan Morris as a great traveller and explorer.
“Morris is a fab, fab writer: very descriptive and a very interesting person,” Jones says. “He went to really rough and tough places.” This was when she identified as James Morris, before transitioning from male to female in the 1970s.
She tells me of Morris’ role reporting for The Times on the 1950s British Mount Everest Expedition, which was the first to scale the mountain.
The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country (1986) is a poetic evocation of the history, art, landscapes, culture and character of the Welsh people. Morris captures the spirit of Wales in her writing, tracing its changes through time, to create a heartfelt literary tribute to the country.
Cartographic Imaginaries: Interpreting Literary Atlas exhibition
A vibrantly coloured woodcut stretching from floor to ceiling, an arced pile of books scattered with other miscellaneous objects, and a detailed ink and acrylic drawing of a woman’s face containing traces of maps, people and buildings were some of many intriguing pieces of art on display.
Below is a selection of five of the twelve original artworks part of this exhibition from the Pierhead’s Futures Gallery.