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 thematic preoccupations.

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 note.
  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, Aaron.

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 Independent


  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 cousin's death.

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, Aaron.

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 Scotsman


  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 Mail


  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.
  Financial Times


  Adolescence, a time of questing and questioning, is when alternative lifestyles present themselves as an opportunity to explore beyond what's been so far experienced. …

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 Observer


  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 dystopia.
Rating   ****
Tina Jackson, Metro NorthWest


  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.
Rating   ***
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 happens.

Complicated relationships boil over into profound passions and violence.

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 the
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 of the'60s.

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.

July 2004

This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies