Dead Man’s Embers is a mostly quiet story set in a small Welsh village just after the Great War, where everyone knows everyone, and you still might be more likely to go to someone who knows their herbs than to a doctor. It deals with the aftermath of war, in one thread, and of the development of understanding of not obviously physical illnesses and disabilities (featuring PTSD, dementia and what is presumably autism). It also deals with the tribulations of dealing with a family where you’re not always welcome, and of disillusionment with a loved figure from the past. There’s a touch of magic realism — can Rhiannon, Non, actually see people’s illnesses? Can the medium who speaks to her actually see something?
My answer would be yes, sort of, at least as far as Non goes. Her father calls her gift “diagnosis”, and I do believe that some people have that instinctive ability. I’ve only really had the experience once, looking at a man I admired and realising there was something wrong with his heart (and I couldn’t really say why: something about his face, the colour of his skin, the way he stood). He was dead within days, exactly as I had thought — but the doctor who saw him didn’t see what I saw, and sent him home. Some things do leave their marks, just like that, and that aspect of the story rang pretty true to me, no magic required.
The medium, well, I was less convinced, but strange things do happen and we don’t always know what to make of them, and that was more or less how it was handled here.
The love between Non and her family, the little points of conflict, all worked really well to support the mystery of what exactly happened to her husband Davey. It does get a little dramatic towards the end, with his realisations and confessions, but that works because of the solid support of Non’s fears and caring for him, and because his earlier traumatised state is well described. And there’s so many well-realised people — gossipy Maggie, steady Lizzie and Wil, capable and yet embittered Angela… People desperate for any kind of comfort, willing to believe anything, in the wake of a war which took so many away and changed Britain so much.
And it is so quietly, but so intrinsically, so very Welsh. Taken for granted is the fact that Welsh soldiers had to write home in English, which their families may not even have spoken. That notices of death came in English, and sometimes you’d have to go fetch an English speaker to read the news to you in Welsh. That Welsh speakers would’ve been forced to speak English, and punished if they did not. The “Welsh Not” is just a reality, not the horrible thing it seems to me.
Dead Man’s Embers is not my usual sort of book, but it cast a spell over me. I read it in an afternoon, unwilling to put it down.