Thursday, May 20, 2010

Brothers of Gwynedd Part 1 - Sunrise in the West

Over the next couple of months I am participating in the Sourcebooks Summer Reading Club, where the chosen read is Edith Pargeter's The Brothers of Gwynedd. When it was originally published back in the early mid 1970's, it was released as four separate books, with the first one being Sunrise in the West, which is the part that I am concentrating on today. This reissue is being released as one volume, and it is huge!

Have you ever read a book, or an author, that just spoiled you for any other authors that you read that dared to set their story in the same time and place? I have, and unfortunately for The Brothers of Gwynedd that story was Sharon Kay Penman's fantastic Welsh trilogy (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning). Admittedly the setting is not exactly the same. The first book in SKP's trilogy was Here Be Dragons, and focused on Llewellyn the Fawr, who is the grandfather of the Llewellyn who is the main character in this book, but some of the events that are covered in the first part of this novel, are covered in the later novels in the trilogy.

As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself trying to remember what had happened in SKP’s books, and my mind wandering off towards a reread of those books. As I think about it now, that leads me to wonder, what precisely was it that didn’t initially capture my imagination in this novel? In the first instance it is probably the density of the language, and a feeling of distance, of not getting to know the characters. Initially I was attributing this to an almost old-fashioned style of writing historical fiction, but I am currently reading a book that was published around the same time, and I am having to rethink that conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong. The language is beautiful. While I was reading this first part, I shared these two teasers as part of Teaser Tuesday, from pages 11 and 107 respectively:

By the upland road we went, turning our backs on that blessed sea that leads outward over the watery brightness to the beauteous isle of Enlli, where the saints are sleeping in bliss. We went towards the rib of Lleyn, that leads into Wales as an arm leads into the body: from rest into turmoil, from peace into conflict, from bliss into anguish.

For these family relationships with their hates and loves were the trammel and bane of Wales as they were of the marches, and indeed, from all I could ever learn, of England and France and those troubled realms beyond the see no less. And the more the great laboured to make dynastic marriages, the more they tied their own hands, and put into other hands knives for their own backs. Their histories and ours was ever a chronicle of such expulsions and revenges, the tide of fortune flowing now this way, now that, and never safe or still.

There is definitely a lyricism to the words, but a whole book full of this kind of language is a bit time consuming to read. Normally I read somewhere between 60 and a 100 pages a day, so based on these averages I would have expected to get through the first section of this book, which is about 180 pages, in maybe 3 or 4 days tops. It took me more than 10. If I was a reader who gave up on books easily, there’s a fair chance that I would have put this down with the intention of never picking it up, but I am glad I persevered, because once I got more than half way through this first section, my enjoyment of it did increase.

So far I have talked about my reactions to the book, but not a lot about what it is actually about. Our narrator is Samson. He was born to his mother who was a lady in the Welsh court, but he does not know who his father is. As a young boy he played with Llewellyn whose father was the illegitimate oldest son of Llewellyn the Fawr. Normally illegitimacy does not preclude inheritance under Welsh law, but his father had decided to follow the English tradition of allowing only legitimate children to inherit, and therefore the younger son, David inherited the Welsh lands of his father. The scene is therefore set for dissension, constant battles between the supporters of both men, between those who want to follow and uphold the Welsh traditions and those who see the sense in trying to unite Wales under one leader.

In addition to being a playmate to Llewellyn (the younger), Samson’s mother was milkmaid to his brother David, and so Samson shares strong bonds with both the brothers. When still a young boy, he is sent off to begin a life of religious instruction, and this is what he expects his lot in life to be, until as a young man he is called back to Court, and finds himself working as clerk to the Welsh prince and one of his closest confidants.

One of the legacies of his father is ongoing issues between Llewellyn and his three brothers, agitated by their mother to a great extent. The three brothers, including the charismatic, changeable and vibrant David, have all pledged loyalty to the English king Henry, in the hope that their own claims will be upheld.

Llewellyn is sure of his right to rule Wales, but his greatest challenge is how to unite the whole country so that instead of fighting against each other, they can stand united against their greatest foe, England.

The difficulty of having Samson as the narrator, is that whilst he is sometimes part of the action, there are other times when he is merely retelling the facts for the reader. He is also somewhat under developed as a character personally. We find out what happened in his life, but I didn’t really feel as though we were allowed any intimate knowledge of him as a person until late in the book.

For all the denseness of the language, I will be continuing to read along, and I am confident that there will be a worthwhile result in the end. At this point, if I was to rate this book , I would probably give it a grading of 3.5/5

As part of this Summer Book Club, there is going to be a monthly chat about the book, each hosted at a different blog. The discussion of this first part of The Brothers of Gwynedd will be hosted by Amy at Passages to the Past on Monday night, May 24 at 7.00 EST (US time), and please check out what other people in the book club had to say about their experiences of reading this part of the book.

May 17 Reviews
The Burton Review
The Bibliophilic Book Blog
A Reader's Respite
History Undressed
Linda Banche Blog
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Renee's Reads

May 18 Reviews
Between the Pages
The Broken Teepee
Books and Coffee
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff
Passages to the Past
The Book Faery
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Martha's Bookshelf

May 19 Reviews
Beth Fish
Deb's Book Bag
Book Tumbling
A Work in Progress
Stiletto Storytime
Queen of Happy Endings

May 20 Reviews
The Literate Housewife
Reading Adventures
Books Like Breathing
Kailana's Written World
Confessions of a Muse in the Fog
Wendy's Minding Spot
Mrs. Q Book Addict
The Life and Lies of a Flying Inanimate Object
Starting Fresh

May 21 Reviews
Loving Heart Mommy
Peeking Between the Pages
Celtic Lady's Ramblings
One Literature Nut
The Book Tree
My Reading Room

May 23 Reviews
Carla Nayland's Blog


  1. Great post! I just posted my post as well. I liked the first section, but I thought it was a little slow going. It didn't help that the pages are longer (length wise), and made me feel like it was taking forever to read a few pages.

  2. I read this several years ago and after the Penman trilogy. I expected to gobble it up but it just didn't work for me, the writing was a bit dry as well as the first person narrative.

    That said, I do recommend her Heaven Tree Trilogy, while not the fasted paced books the writing is just lovely.

  3. Fantastic review Marg, really in depth. I love it and I agree with everything you said. I really struggled with it and had a lot of trouble concentrating. But eventually I did enjoy the language but it is a much slower read. I've read a few reviews that mention the SKP trilogy and now I really want to read it. But first The Brothers of Gwyneed!

  4. Wonderful review, very thorough..

  5. Wonderful review, Marg! It sounds like this book is a really dense read, what with the language and the less than optimal plot structure. I know what it's like to read something and feel that it falls a bit short compared to other authors, and I can imagine that you are a bit disappointed. That being said, I hope you enjoy the other parts of the book a bit more, and I will be checking back to see what you think!

  6. Great review.
    Many of us seem to agree about the language. But yes beautiful

  7. Great job sticking with it and writing that review. Sometimes I think the review is tougher to write! Although it sounds interesting and I will certainly follow along, I'll pass. I'll read it through your fab reviews :)

  8. I've read SKP, but not her books on the brothers Gwynedd. It was extremely slow going for me as well, and while I like the story I am finding it all very uneven. I hate to admit this, but I ended up ordering the next three books in their original versions--mass market paperbacks, which will be far easier to carry around. I'm wondering if part of the problem is just presentation--so much text on those large pages! I guess I'll find out now that I have a smaller version with normal type/margins.



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