KITH & KIN
|| Kith and Kin is another
gem from Stevie Davies crafted, moving and minutely well-observed.
It unveils the complicated joys and burdens of family life perfectly,
while psalming the irreversible progression of time, mysteries
of the body, the loss and rediscovery of innocence.
||Kith and Kin starts with
a pair of relatively obvious images. Two cousins, and Aaron,
wrangle over the ashes of a third, mirroring their previous
battles for her undivided attention. Mara is conducting research
into the phenomenon of the phantom limb, pioneering a new therapy
by which the brain is tricked into believing the loss has not
taken place. Any initial fears that this exploration of the
tightening and loosing of family bonds will be too schematic
and aridly patterned are rapidly dispelled by Stevie Davies's
startlingly-dense and suggestive prose, her proliferating cast
of characters and her intensely imagined grasp of pain and damage.
In the novel's present, middle-aged, successful Mara returns
to the South Wales of her youth, where her extended family bickered
and feuded over property and propriety, periodically shunning
each other only for the rifts to appear, suddenly, miraculously
healed. The trauma that has affected them most deeply is the
suicide, decades earlier, of Frankie, the family's lost child
and self-proclaimed black sheep.
Davies packs much into the dissolution of Frankie's brief life:
there is the death of her father, the pods of his lungs popped
like the bladderwrack that drapes the surrounding beaches; her
fickle and be-lipsticked mother's infatuation with and remarriage
to the monstrous Jack, a roaring drunkard and violent lecher;
Frankie's later obsession with a group of destructive hippies,
led by the manipulative, self-deifying George; the instability
worsened by her growing dependence on drugs and her rejection
of physical or emotional support.
At times, there is an almost Gothic overload of horrors, especially
once Frankie and Mara fight clear of childhood and make determined
efforts to overturn their elders' sanctions; a particularly
lurid account of a road trip to Texas, in search of Janis Joplin,
features, for example, the spiteful vandalising of a Republican
household and a scene that stops just short of gang rape. Equally,
the grotesque figures of Jack and George, each implicated in
unresolved mysteries that run the length of the novel, both
power its narrative tension and obscure some of its more subtle
What survives is the simultaneously nurturing and destructive
bond between Frankie and Mara, and the neurotic triangulation
that occurs whenever a third, whether it be Aaron, George or
Frankie's infant son, Zack, threatens the primacy of their relationship.
Davies draws this suffocating bond exceptionally well; telling
the story through Mara's eyes, she animates extreme love and
its flip side, ungovernable jealousy and resentment. She adds
another dimension when she sets this personal relationship against
the political consciousness of the 1960s; as emerging feminist
and activist Mara finds herself yearning to quit the delusions
of communal living in favour of "comradeship and purpose", Davies
brings to life a moment in history when the meaning of family
was freighted with ideological contradiction. And as Frankie,
George and Aaron's misguided attempts to re-define family implode,
the rhythms of traditional Welsh life, with its "bachs" and
"cariads" and "lovely girls", slowly reassert themselves.
Kiln and Kin is littered with casualties not merely Frankie
herself, but a generation for whom "life seemed to be one long
anxiety', and, in particular, its menfolk, who are consistently
seen as less resilient than their wives, mothers and daughters.
In consequence, the issue and questionable importance of paternity
is a productive and fascinating subtheme. Mara, whose detachment
provides a grounding for the novel that offsets its more hectic
meanderings, is the damaged, but surviving, product of the collision
between freedom and responsibility, duty and abandon, togetherness
and individuality. Stevie Davies's own position in this battle
remains deliberately unclear, but the dislocations that she
gives voice to continue to sound a deeply affecting and provocative
||Alex Clark, TLS
||The heroine of Stevie Davies's excellent
new novel is first encountered as "a sift of fine silver powder"
being scattered to the wind from a South Wales cliff top by
her cousins, Mara and Aaron. Fatally self-destructive, maddeningly
fey yet charismatic, Francesca, whose supposedly drug-fuelled
suicide at the age of 23 has indelibly marked the lives of those
who knew her, is a Sixties casualty. After the unearthing of
a long-lost film made in the heady days of flower-power, her
life is recalled by the middle-aged Mara.
Mara and Francesca grow up together as cousins in Fifties Swansea,
part of a large extended family. Following the death of Francesca's
father and her weak-minded, silly mother's marriage to the crudely
visceral Jack, Francesca tries her hardest to inveigle her way
into the heart of Mara's family. A pattern of competing for
affection is set, which echoes down the years in the love both
girls bear towards their gentle, patient, undervalued cousin,
When Francesca becomes pregnant by him, their grandmother leaves
her the family seat, Breuddwyd. It does not take a genius to
see that selfish, feckless Francesca should not be left in charge
of anything, and she proceeds to fill the house up with hippies
of the most virulent sort. But Nana loves little Frankie, and
it's not hard to see why. Davies has captured the essence of
this particular archetype superbly: the draining, manipulative
charmer, forever needy, forever feral.
Francesca is a true child of the Sixties. References abound
to icons such as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, and Davies captures
perfectly the way in which an entire generation was defined
by its music. In the spaced-out eyes of admirers, Francesca
becomes a character in a Dylan song. While there is tremendous
cachet, the burden is immeasurable, and she cannot help but
shatter under the weight of expectation.
Frankie thinks she's a pioneer. In fact, in the eyes of the
feminist sisters who will succeed her, she's anything but. Nana's
house becomes headquarters to "The Beloved Community", a hotch-potch
of lost souls between whom not much love is lost. The Beloved
Community comes to resemble in disturbing ways another experiment
in communal living that went disastrously wrong, Charles Manson's
"family". While not plumbing such depths of depravity, the awful
George, a masterful portrait, is a very nasty piece of work,
and the whole precarious edifice rests on the presumption of
male superiority. "The men were tongues; the girls were ears.
The ears cosied up to the tongues of choice and allowed themselves
to receive the benefit of their windbag garrulities with every
appearance of worship. It was worse than bloody chapel." Like
the beats before them, the hippies were as traditional in their
sex roles as any staid Fifties suburbanite.
The community that survives is not that of the beloved dafties,
but the endlessly bickering, gossiping family group that was
there all along. The dear old aunt, the hippie-turned-yuppie,
the staunch chapel-goer, all combine to commune and nostalgically
recall the life and loss of "our girlie". The material is all
too easy to caricature, but Davies is much too astute to fall
into that trap. Her characters have the ring of complex truth.
These people can aggravate and endear themselves all at the
same time. Just like real life.
||Carol Birch, The
||Against a backdrop of windswept
Wales, Stevie Davies's excellent new novel follows the complex
love that binds together three cousins in 1960s Swansea: Mara,
the sensible, intellectual narrator, Francesca, the fatherless
and volatile cousin dead at 23 from drug-induced suicide, and
Aaron, the soft and pliable lover of both. When Mara, now middle-aged
and a consultant in phantom pain among amputees, catches some
grainy footage of Francesca on a TV documentary, she is forced
to delve into her past and re-examine the grisly nature of her
As girls, Mara and Francesca are unnaturally close, sharing
secrets, emulating each other's actions, spending all their
time together; once, as teenagers, even kissing. But it is a
sisterhood spiked with jealousy and fear, as the two tussle
over the affections of Mara's father and, later, their cousin,
Their intertwined families, forever sparring over property,
children and each other, provide a thick and ultimately stifling
security blanket for the three cousins. While some subjects,
such as who will inherit the family home, Breuddwyd, are endlessly
and heatedly argued, others, like the blackness at the heart
of Francesca's mother's second marriage, are neatly ignored.
Grudges are never dropped, betrayals never forgotten.
Before long, all three cousins fall into the exotic hippy world
that has sprung up around them where they study philosophy,
drop acid, and enjoy free love. When Francesca, wild and untamable,
forever craving attention, falls pregnant by Aaron, an incestuous
act ignored by almost all around them, her grandmother leaves
her Breuddwyd in which to raise her child much to the
annoyance of the three families. Before long, it becomes a hangout
for every long-haired philosopher and drug-taker in town. As
events spiral out of control, Breuddwyd, and the strange hippy
family which inhabit its walls, take on responsibility for the
book's disturbing climax.
Kith & Kin
reeks of the 1960s. Journeys in pursuit of Janis Joplin, bad
trips and paisley patterned skirts all make an appearance, as
do slack morals and hedonistic idealism. Davies flits seamlessly
between contemporary Swansea and the heady days of flower power,
melting past and present as Mara, pulled deeper into investigating
her own youth, begins to take on some of the lost qualities
of her younger self.
Davies's imagery is inventive and unpredictable. A plump, auburn-haired
aunt reminds Mara of "an over-ripe apricot". A dying girl plays
the reedy notes of a dulcimer in a garden. A fleck of human
ash lands in the bud of an eye. But it is for the tough yet
fragile Francesca that Davies reserves her most powerful passages,
as she leads her heroine along the tortuous path that must,
inevitably, end with her death. Early on, Mara muses: "To love
might involve being aggrieved, vicious, raw; it might compel
you to cut dead your kith and kin when you met them in the street,
because love was rivalrous, was theft and cheating."
Davies has sown this brand of difficult love throughout Kith
& Kin, leaving the reader breathless with its intensity.
|| Emma Cowing, The
||This is Stevie Davies'
first novel since The Element of Water, which was longlisted
for the Booker and Orange Prizes and won the Arts Council of
Wales Award. Kith & Kin is set in the stifling atmosphere
of Swansea in the late Fifties, within the bonds of an extended
family that thrives on gossip, feuds and back-biting ('the Evanses,
Menelauses and Thomases were linked by intermarriage and sundered
by grudges of fabulous longevity and labyrinthine complication').
Mara and Frankie are cousins of the same age, so close that
they have a secret language and sometimes wind their hair into
a single plait. But tragedy strikes when the rebellious Frankie
hangs herself in a fit of drug-induced despair.
What's remarkable about Kith & Kin is Davies' sensual evocation
of the intensity of family life, and the bonds of blood and
love. 'To love,' she writes, 'might involve being aggrieved,
vicious, raw; it might compel you to cut dead your kith and
kin when you met them in the street, because love was rivalrous,
was theft and cheating. Love might inhabit a zone of murderous
danger and still be love'. Beautifully unflinching.
|| Ned Denny, Daily
||Swansea in the 1950s. Suffocating,
conventional, dull. The warm and extended family network of
first cousins Frankie and Mara provides warmth and stability,
but also a stranglehold of firmly held ideas. Frankie is the
more rebellious character of the two questing and demanding;
Mara is more contented with her lot.
As the 1960s dawn, and with them the girls' adolescence, notions
of family, loyalty and what the future should hold are all shaken
to their foundations especially as both girls start to
yearn for another cousin, Aaron.
Stevie Davies is characteristically clever at probing the networks
of love and jealousy, the mutual support and bitter rivalry,
the façades and undercurrents that make up this family
or perhaps any family. The theme of childhood friends
in this new novel follows on from her last, The Element
of Water, in which Davies creates the world of two young
German boys growing up in the 1930s and growing rapidly
and tragically apart with the coming of Nazism.
She has a special talent for cutting through the apparently
ordinary and finding what is remarkable underneath and, in doing
so, reveals deep truths about the extremes of human nature.
||Adolescence, a time of
questing and questioning, is when alternative lifestyles present
themselves as an opportunity to explore beyond what's been so
Harking back to a hippy 1960s and early '70s, Stevie Davis'
[sic] beautifully-written and realised Kith & Kin
is in caustic opposition to nostalgic recollections of the love
and peace generation that concentrate on the flowering of possibilities
as a more restrictive age is cast off. Instead, it tells of
a wilful waste of a human life and its repercussions through
time. Recounted through the eyes of Mara as she seeks, posthumously,
to come to terms with events three decades earlier, it tells
of her and her cousin Frankie's parallel searches for self-determination
as a reaction to their conformist Welsh upbringing.
Mara is a clever child and her family background is secure:
she dips into the new experiences of her generation but retains
a firm hold on her individuality as she grows into her identity
as a lesbian and intellectual. Later, she becomes a fully-fledged
dropout. Her freewheeling wings are voluntarily clipped through
her reliance on her cousin a charismatic counter-cultural
control-freak and her life implodes into a passively
chaotic mess in a cesspit of a commune, with drugs substituted
for a sense of purpose. Her story portrays communal hippy life
as a squalid, self-seeking, self-destructive retreat from responsibility,
with an insistence on peer-group conformity that freaks out
the independent Mara.
Davies tells a complex and emotionally disturbing tale with
a sense of tender anger; the sense of loss of innocence as the
utopian dream of social revolution and free love turns into
life-sapping passive resistance is brilliantly evoked. The insanitary
filth in which her hippies play their paranoid mind games is
so skilfully drawn it makes you want to rush out and buy bleach.
||Tina Jackson, Mslexia
||Stevie Davies's fifth [sic] novel is
a tight and poised exploration of family life based around the
classic device of the love triangle and its attendant jealousies,
suspicions and potential for competition and reconfiguration.
Into this claustrophobic mise-en-scène, Davies introduces
further complications; Francesca, Mara and Aaron are first cousins,
bound together not only by love but by rebellion against ancient
family rifts and rivalries and the whispered outrage of their
small Welsh community.
At the beginning of the novel, one angle of the triangle has
been removed: Francesca is first encountered as a handful of
ashes whipped out to sea by the Gower wind as her two cousins
fight over her remains.
Francesca (Frankie's) brief life, ended by her apparently drug-fuelled
suicide at the age of 23, is recovered through the memories
of Mara, now 47 and a consultant at a medical institute researching
the phenomenon of phantom pain in amputees. It's rather a heavy-handed
analogy Mara listens to the stories of war veterans describing
the ghost of pain in a foot no longer there just as she conjures
up the presence of Frankie, still vivid and painful after so
many years but one that makes its point.
The novel is full of such pregnant absences and gaps; returning
to her childhood town of Oystermouth after many years, Mara
walks past Frankie's old home and sees that the garage where
Frankie hanged herself has been razed: 'Where she had thrown
away her life, there was nothingness. From then on, every time
I went past, I was shocked afresh by this nothingness.'
For Mara, Frankie embodied the abstract hopes of the Sixties,
gathering around her a commune of hippies united by a desire
to escape the narrowness of their parents' lives and ideals.
Since childhood, the girls' lives have been knit together, and
in spite of their differences, Mara persists in seeing them
as polarised elements of a whole.
While Frankie sings Dylan songs and pursues the elusive colours
of her acid trips amid her coterie of druids and earth mothers,
Mara grows more concerned with the social changes beginning
to make themselves felt. As Mara follows the memories she has
spent years erasing up to the point of Frankie's death, so in
the present, Mara's own daughter, Menna, is attempting to re-establish
contact with her Uncle Aaron and so piece together the secrets
of her family's past.
Mara's narrative voice is admirably restrained, quietly layering
feeling to build a sense of an enclosed world, the memory of
which remains binding and compelling long after it has all but
disintegrated. The community of seekers after free love and
social revolution are no more enlightened in their relationships
with one another than the familial and local community they
set out to defy. But Davies's greatest skill is in the depiction
of childhood memories: 'We sorted pebbles, wetting them to find
the most beautiful opal, agate, you could scarcely refrain
from putting them in your mouth, so perfect was the illusion,
but they'd jar against the enamel of your teeth.'
Her descriptions gleam with subtle beauty like these slick stones,
holding at bay the threat of sentimentality as she explores
the fine line between the emotions that hold people together
and those which drive them apart.
||Stephanie Merritt, The
||Set during the social and sexual revolution
of the 1960s, this is the rites-of-passage story of two girls'
attempts to break out of the conformity of a working-class Welsh
community. Looking back in anger, Mara narrates the story of
her charismatic cousin, Frankie, seduced by her own rebellion
into self-destruction. In a commune characterised by mind games
and peer-group conformity, Frankie's fragile sense of self implodes.
Painting in varying shades of darkness with language of corrosive
power, Stevie Davies turns the colourful 1960s dream of a blissed-out
hippy Utopia on its head to depict a nightmarish countercultural
||Tina Jackson, Metro
||Mara and her cousin Frankie are brought
up in Swansea, in a stifling atmosphere in which they are surrounded
by relations aunts and uncles and second cousins
many of whom are intermarried. They all meet frequently, gossip,
interfere and squabble sometimes dangerously, especially
when they fight over who is to inherit Breuddwyd their
grandmother's house. Mara is clever, difficult but from a stable
family home and parents who try to understand her. When Frankie's
gentle father dies early, her flighty glamorous mother Susie
sister of Mara's father remarries a handsome hard-drinking
man of whom the family disapprove.
Mara and Frankie are closer than sisters, competitive but exclusive.
Disliking her stepfather Jack, Frankie tries to get absorbed
into Mara's family which Mara resents. The time is the
Fifties but problems really start in the flower child days of
the Sixties when Mara is at university and Frankie has gone
off the rails.
For years Mara has managed to put this behind her, bringing
up her daughter and pursuing a successful career. Then, by chance,
she sees a nostalgic video on TV which shows Frankie singing
in those far-off days. This encourages Mara to re-examine the
past and try to find out the truth about Frankie's early suicide,
pursue what happened to her son Zack and try to discover the
identity of his father. This brings her into contact with her
relatives, including cousin Aaron, with whom both she and Frankie
had an intense and sexual relationship.
This is an ambitious novel about the ambiguity in all families.
At its best in the girls' early years, it depicts in horrible
reality the extraordinary community that lives out a claustrophobic
life in Breuddwyd which Frankie's grandmother gives her
when she has her baby. It's all awash with drugs, chanting and
strange philosophies and jealously. Mara is the much stronger
character but Frankie's strange beauty and wonderful singing
exert a fascination in those around her. Her fecklessness and
refusal to accept any responsibility, however, make her an unattractive
personality with whom it is hard to sympathise. But Stevie Davies
manages to pull off a surprising conclusion, all acted out in
the bosom of the family.
|| Maggie Pringle, Daily Express
||This novel, for the most part, is set in 1950s
and '60s Swansea, a time when the old ways and values collide,
with some tragic consequences.
Chapel meets free love, drugs and rock'n'roll, encapsulated
in George, an ex-theology student from Anglesey, who has gone
off the rails and ends up as a rapist.
The novel revolves around cousins Mara and Frankie - one
clever and loved, the other talented and neglected.
The story expands to encompass the extended family, stiflingly
close, bitchy, feuding and incestuous - but family, whatever
Complicated relationships boil over into profound passions
I'm tempted to say that it is the typical Welsh Valleys family
of fiction. But Swansea and Gower aren't valleys and I never
knew a family quite like this.
Stevie Davies is a novelist of great skill and this is a
brilliantly crafted work. She flits back and forth through
decades, teasing out the plot, drawing the reader along in
a wonderfully paced novel.
The intensity builds up cleverly, unobtrusively, arriving
with perfect timing at the climax of the story.
She captures the mood and the horror of events, not without
humour - but a humour that hurts.
When Mara and Frankie go to Texas to visit an aunt, for instance,
they get into a mad argument with a proto-neocon uncle, who
insists: "Cambodia? You got to annihilate them before
they kill democracy. No good whining after the event."
They scrawl anti-Vietnam war graffiti on the walls before
haring away over the horizon. This is followed by a bad trip
on acid and speed.
Eventually, we find ourselves in the calmer waters of a steadier
and wiser generation, remarkably undamaged by the excesses
Yet we are left to ponder on the tolerant pre-'60s generation,
which made me wonder whether the new generation has more in
common with the grandparents than the parents.
Gwyn Griffiths, Morning Star
||Cousins Frankie, Mara and Aaron grow up in companionable
1960s Swansea: beach games and rollerskating are superseded
by mini-skirts, anti-Vietnam war protests and hippie lifestyles.
However, the passionate closeness of their extended family
cannot protect them from transgressive desires. Of the three,
Frankie takes most risks, both psychic and cultural. Incest,
fatherhood and possible suicide shadow Mara's memories of
the past, as, prompted by an old family video, she recalls
earlier days. Stevie Davies evokes an earlier era in delicate,
meticulous detail in a story which asks important questions
about the boundaries of parental and sexual love. This is
a quiet, flavourful novel - though its tranquil narrative
device is sometimes too quiet, as if the time over which the
memories play serves to keep the dark secrets at a distance.
The Sunday Times
Frankie and Mara are cousins growing up together,
bound close in love and competition, tight in the heart of
their big, gossipy family. Then, Frankie's beloved dad takes
ill and dies and her glamorous mother shacks up with a violent
boozer, leaving Frankie neglected and defiant.By the time
clever Mara leaves school, with a place at university assured,
Frankie has turned wild, roaming the countryside with a guitar
and a trail of spellbound suitors. She's being the female
Dylan, Mara observes, but the boys don't see that, blinded
by her edgy sexuality. The swinging sixties have reached their
patch of South Wales, and the pair are seduced by the hippie
rhetoric of free love and radical politics, but Frankie is
increasingly vulnerable, unravelling into madness and, ultimately
suicide. Now Mara is back. Decades after the social revolution
and the tragic events which caused her to flee south Wales,
she catches a glimpse of Frankie in a snatch of old film footage,
which prompts her to revisit their childhood and the last
years of her friend's abbreviated life. This is a dark story,
lightly told; the writing beautiful, compelling and poetic.
You will not want to put it down.
Louise Carolin, Diva
Growing up in the 60s, Francesca, Mara and
Aaron are more best friends than cousins, but can their closeness
be sustained? An intelligent yet easy read.
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