May 12, 2008

Review: 'Sea Holly' by Robert Minhinnick

Porthcawl is a traditional British seaside resort on the South Wales coast about half way between Cardiff and Swansea. It has an esplanade with a row of hotels encamped along the seafront, a funfair called Coney Island and one of the largest caravan and camping parks in Europe. There are several beaches including Rest Bay and Trecco Bay both of which have been awarded the coveted Blue Flag status for adherence to water quality standards. Altogether an interesting and lively place and a perfect setting for a novel which explores the related themes of transience and permanence.

Life is seasonal in Porthcawl, or at least it is for the migrant workers who come to work at the funfair and for the human flotsam and jetsam that live on its margins. Robert Minhinnick has assembled a lively cast of marginal characters many of whom assume the role of narrator as the story unfolds. There is "The Fish" whose diminutive size, withered arm and love of alcohol have condemned him to work collecting fares for a ride aptly named "The Kingdom of The Damned". He spends the last night of the season sitting on a pedestal in "The Kingdom" drinking absinthe and toasting "absinthe friends". There is Donal, ex Special Boat Service, a veteran of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. A man infected with wanderlust and a love of the sea. He has returned to Porthcawl after a failed Spanish business venture. His bar in Spain was called "El Zorro". Named after a freak wave that would snatch people off the beach and wash them out to sea. At one point he reflects ruefully whilst swimming off the 'Caib':-

"And yeah, that wave, El Zorro, that people warned their children about? Well I was the one it swallowed, wasn't I? I was the one it snatched off the beach. Funny really. You might even call it ironic.How that bastard wiped me out."

Many other colorful characters stalk these pages including Lol ,the geography teacher who sees a vision and goes native, camping in the dunes for years and communing with nature. There is also Hal the local Napoleon who owns much of the fair and many other things besides including a beer mat signed by Richard Burton, his hero, which is amongst his prized possessions.

It falls to the lot of these characters to narrate the tale of John Vine, a fifty year old English teacher who has left his job and family behind to live in a caravan on the Caib and pursue a new 'career' as a bingo caller at the fair. This crisis in his affairs was precipitated by an involvement with a young female student who subsequently disappeared.

The action takes place over a seven day period and during the course of the week we are offered many fascinating insights into the characters of both John Vine and the many narrators. Of course the disappearance of John Vine's former pupil, Rachel is central to the plot but we are also presented with a vivid portrait and masterful evocation of life on the 'Caib'. Indeed so much so that the novel was nominated for the 2008 Ondaatje Prize, a literary award that is given for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which powerfully evokes the "spirit of a place".

This is a novel for anyone with an appreciation of the transience of mans life and works and of the futility of resistance to time and tide. It is Robert Minhinnick's first novel and hopefully the first of many.

First rate....highly recommended! A bigraphy of Robert Minhinnick can be found here.

Trecco Bay Porthcawl

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