None So Blind by Alis Hawkins – an historical novel reviewed and with author’s answers

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Historical fiction at its best, this is a book set in 1850 featuring a young man with more than his career as a lawyer on his mind. The action takes place in West Wales in a period of social upheaval typified by the Rebecca Riots, and combines a subtle set of social rules with a deviously complex plot. The fight for justice for the death of a young woman is made painfully human as Harry Probert – Lloyd discovers that nothing in this situation is as it seems, and everyone has their mysteries and withheld truths.  I was so pleased to be asked to read and review this story of ‘The Teifi Valley Coroner” which I very much enjoyed in so many ways.

Harry has returned from his practice as a barrister in London with his friend Gus. What he has not told his father, who is a landowner in Cardiganshire, is the real reason for his return following his exile to Oxford and the capital. As Harry says “There is never a convenient moment to discover that you are going progressively blind.” Gus has become his guide and interpreter of a world that he remembers, but cannot focus on except in the periphery of his vision. The shattering discovery of the body of Margaret, his one time love, means that he feels forced to press for an inquest into her death. In doing so he stirs up all kinds of inbuilt prejudices, hatred and terrors of a return to a time of confrontation, when no one feels safe from being dragged into scandal and worse. John is a young lawyer’s clerk who discovers a sympathy for Harry, as he begins to discover the extent of his obvious weakness and less apparent abilities. John has his own secrets as he soon realises that he has been involved in the fear and betrayal caused by the riots of years before, and is surrounded by those who all too clearly remember old hatreds. Harry’s investigations turn up all sorts of strange revelations, including within his own home, and he is striving to conceal his special knowledge and consuming guilt about Margaret.

This book is an exceptional and substantial work of imagination built on solid research. Each character swiftly demonstrates his or her own ‘voice’, and moreover the accent of the people echoes in the reader’s head. While this is a work of fiction it manages to ring true throughout the novel as depicting how people react. The sounds, smells and settings are brilliantly described as Harry struggles to work out the tiny things he is not seeing and the non verbal clues which he can no longer appreciate. The concept of having a main character with sight problems means that the narration is of an unusual quality, and I believe works exceptionally well. I really enjoyed this book, and cannot wait for the next installment in this brilliant new series.

In today’s mammoth post, I wanted to add the questions and answers that Alis contributed. Sorry it’s so long!

  1. The novel is obviously set in West Wales. How much is the place important to you, and did you always intend for the setting to almost become another character?

Getting the feel of the Teifi Valley right was very important to me as it’s where I grew up and where my family still lives; the site of my main character’s family home is less than a mile from the our farm. Added to that, it’s not a well known area. People are often familiar with the beaches of the Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire coast but their knowledge ends there and I felt a real responsibility to represent the area accurately. It’s such a beautiful part of the world but it tends to get overshadowed in the popular imagination by more dramatic landscapes like Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than a pastoral river valley.

As to whether I intended the setting to become almost another character, that just happened. I think  there are three reasons for that:

Firstly, as a teenager, I got know the area where None So Blind is set really well on foot, on horseback (astonishingly useful) and on a bike, so I’m able to describe it in much greater detail than if I’d only ever driven around in a car. You notice different things when you’re on foot, or when you have a higher vantage point on horseback.

Secondly, having Harry see the topography through the lens of his partial sight was one way in which I was able to convey how he feels about his blindenss but it also gave me a very different appreciation for the landscape. What does it look like when you only have peripheral vision, what becomes important then?

And, thirdly, in a very real sense, the events which form the backdrop to the murder  – the Rebecca Riots – were brought about by the particularities of the landscape of West Wales. The maintenance and improvement of roads in an area with so many hills, woods, valleys, rivers and streams – not to mention rain – is a huge undertaking; that’s why the Turnpike Trusts, against whose tollgates the farmers rioted, were necessary in the first place.

What Harry calls the ‘tangle of wooded river valleys’ that form the topography of the lower Teifi Valley also gave rise to a very particular kind of society with close-knit and interdependent communities. It is out of these communities that both the independence of spirit and the secrecy necessary to the Rebecca movement were born. Added to that, the farmers and labourers knew their fields and hills and valleys so well that they could literally disappear into the landscape, consistently foiling the metropolitan police and dragoons who were brought in to try and quell the riots. It was very important to me to convey the sense of deep rootedness that is implied in that ability.

As research sites go, however, where you grew up does lacks a certain exoticism – I often envy friends who set their books in sunny places and write off trips against tax as research – but it does mean that I get to see friends and family more often!

  1. How much research did you do on the Rebecca Riots? Do you enjoy the research, and how do you know when to stop?

I’ve wanted to write a book about the Rebecca Riots since I was at school and I’ve been researching the period off and on for twenty years. So, when I decided to write None So Blind it was a case of refreshing my memory and getting certain key facts right – like the timing of the movement of rioting into the Teifi Valley and the dates when police and the army were brought in. Then I could get on with researching the nitty gritty of life at the time as the book grew, researching as I went.

Of course, I needed to know the basics like the details of what people wore –what did the working men of 1940s Cardiganshire wear on their heads, for instance, who wore ‘stovepipe’ hats and what exactly is a betgwn, mainstay of Welsh national female costume; what people ate – I discovered that potatoes and buttermilk were the mainstays of the poor; and what people’s houses were like – appallingly primitive in the case of those at the bottom end of society.

But I also needed to know other specifics:

What stage railway development had reached. As lines were being developed and grand new stations built at an enormous rate, it was really important to get the exact timings right as Harry and John travelled to London.

When did gaslights make their way into private homes? This was a very real question for Harry as he sees better in good light, and it was a huge disappointment to him to discover that though gaslights were catching on in private homes in London, the necessary infrastructure made it highly unlikely that West Wales would be gaslit for decades.

How far can you realistically walk in an afternoon on non-tarmaced roads? Depends on how many hills there are. Duh!

When did people stop building their own houses in the West Wales countryside and start employing others to do so? This was, it emerged, getting well underway in the period of None So Blind as people began to lust after two-storey houses built from stone as opposed to one storey built from turf or cob. Interestingly, most ‘traditional’ nineteenth century cottages in the area date from the period just after the riots, so I found myself making a lot of (somewhat educated) assumptions.

How were contemporary inquests held? This was a hugely difficult one to crack until I discovered the work of Pam Fisher of Leicester University whose papers on the internet – including the intriguingly titled ‘Getting Away With Murder? The Suppression of Coroners’ Inquests in Early Victorian England And Wales’ – were a revelation.

When did people plant and harvest potatoes? A crucial issue in West Wales at the time as a family relying on potatoes as their main carbohydrate only needs a quarter of the land that a family relying on grain as its staple does.

As for when to stop researching, as you probably guessed from the breathless enthusiasm of the list above, I basically don’t until I hit ‘Send’ on the final version of the publisher’s proofs. I’m forever putting new bits in which will need checking, or double-checking things I’d already nailed down, just in case!

So, to sum research up, I suppose I do the ‘grand sweep’ – the broad understanding of my chosen set of events – before I begin a book and then I keep researching minutiae as I write. I know some writers make notes for themselves as they go in the text – eg: [check whether it’s possible to walk from Cwm Cou to Cardigan in three hours] – and then back-fill when the book is done but that doesn’t work for me. Even slight changes tend to change tiny but vital bits of plot, so I work it all out as I go.

  1. When I read the dialogue in the book, I can almost hear the accents! If there was a plan to produce an audio version, would you have a view on the readers being able to convince listeners that a lot of the characters were Welsh?

That’s such a great thing to hear – thank you!

I worked really hard on making the dialogue sound authentic, and on making John and Harry sound different. (though, unless you’re a grammar nerd like me you won’t spot the lengths I went to – eg John never uses passive constructions and I try and keep his use of Latin-derived words and subordinate clauses to a minimum.)

I love writing. Characters talking to each other always drive my stories.

And yes, I have very definite ideas about how I’d want the characters to sound in an audio version. Just to have Welsh actors wouldn’t be enough. It drives me mad on the telly when they have characters supposedly from one area of Wales but whose accent is from a different area entirely. It’s like having someone supposedly from Cornwall sounding like a Scouser! So John, at least, would need to have a south Cardiganshire/west Carmarthenshire accent to be authentic. Harry I’d be able to live with sounding English, though I’d like him to have a bit of a twang, just to acknowledge how he feels about being Welsh.

Don’t ask much, do I?!

  1. At what point did you decide to make Harry blind? Is it so that the descriptions have to be different? How central do you think it is?

What a perceptive question – because, of course, the descriptions do have to be different. Harry’s descriptions are fragmentary, or rely on memory, whereas John can afford to be lazy about what he sees and, paradoxially, doesn’t always describe things in as much detail as Harry.

When I first started writing None So Blind, Harry wasn’t blind. But, pretty quickly, I realised that he didn’t have a sufficiently compelling reason for coming home from London, so I decided that it would be convincing – and, incidentally, a bit of a unique selling point which never hurts! – to make him partially sighted. However, as soon as I started writing in his voice, Harry’s blindness stopped being a plot device and became central to who he is. The loss of his sight gave me an insight into the rest of his personality. How a person reacts to adversity can tell you a lot about them.

His condition is a real one. Today it’s known as Stargardt’s Disease or Juvenile Macular Degeneration. It was important to me to know the parameters within which Harry was working and macular degeneration is relatively easy to work out for yourself. I walked around quite a lot while I was writing the book with both index fingers held over my central visual field to give me a rough idea of what Harry could see. I’m sure the people out and about where I take my walks thought I was highly eccentric!

It was fascinating to realise how much of our lives are predicated on our visual sense – particularly non-verbal communication – and to see how that might stand in Harry’s way as an investigator. That’s why, for some things, he relies so heavily on John. On other occasions, however – and one in particular – his increased auditory acuity, unmasked by the dominance of sight, stands him in good stead.

But I also found that I got caught up very easily in the emotional aspects of Harry’s condition. It was easy to imagine his frustration, his grief, and the way in which, every so often, the implications of his condition would hit him.

  1. What do you think about women’s choices in the novel? Is Margaret always wiser in the world than Harry?

Ah… Harry’s a dreamer. He was really born in the wrong century – he would have been far happier in the late eighteenth century with Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the revolutionary fervour of the American and French revolutions. Many things seemed possible then – universal suffrage, equality between the sexes, education for all – but that kind of idealism had been trodden down quite a bit by the time Harry came of age.

But, still, he flies the flag for equality and women’s rights, as well as he can – though even he is brought up short every now and again by his own illiberal attitudes.

Margaret, on the other hand, didn’t have Harry’s education and hasn’t read political philosophers. Even the Christian egalitarianism of Nathaniel Howell, the Unitarian minister at her chapel, has to be taken with a pinch of salt as far as she’s concerned. As someone of lower social status with little or no family support, Margaret has to be pragmatic. She tries to live her life to the best of her ability and to take her chances where she finds them. And, within her own very limited sphere, I think she probably is wiser than Harry the idealist. Had she heard him say it, she would have agreed with Harry’s friend, Gus, when he told Harry that, ‘The world won’t alter to suit you, however much you want it to.’

But there are other women in None So Blind who are making choices and making things happen. Esme Williams, for all she is a figure of ridicule to John and a nuisance to Harry, is brighter and a better maker of choices than her husband whom the book shows her running rings around.

Rachel Evans, in weighing up when to tell the truth and when to keep silent, in a context where getting it wrong might see her and her family turned out of their home, shows a moral flexibility that’s beyond Harry.

And then, of course, there’s Lydia…

  1. Without spoilers, where is the series going next if you can say?

The second book in the series, In Two Minds (which will be published in May 2019) begins where None So Blind ends. Given that the series is called the Teifi Valley Coroner, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell readers that, by the end of None So Blind Harry has been asked to stand in as coroner for the area. There’s a certain amount of urgency as the current incumbent is dying and a naked corpse has been discovered on a local beach.

Despite his father’s disapproval, Harry grabs the opportunity with both hands as an alternative to the status quo where he is simply squire-in-waiting. However, in his determination to plough his own furrow, he gets off on the wrong foot with the local inspector of police, setting up an enmity which almost derails the whole investigation. 

Harry enlists John’s help once more but, for reasons which will be clear to the reader by the end of None So Blind, things are rather strained between them which makes the investigation more difficult than it needs to be.

As well as Harry and John, In Two Minds introduces readers to a new character who’s going to be a fixture in the series. I intended Dr Benton Reckitt to be a bit player in In Two Minds but he assumed such a life of his own as soon as he opened the door to Harry and John that he became one of the plot’s main actors and his obsession for performing autopsies turned out to be a second, and quite crucial, theme.

As for whether Lydia makes another appearance, you’ll just have to read In Two Minds to find out!

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