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by Malcolm Pryce
Bloomsbury, May 2009
271 pages
11.99 GBP
ISBN: 0747595194

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Louie Knight's latest client is Uncle Vanya who has come from the Ukrainian town of Hughesovka, founded by a Welsh exile - John Hughes - in 1869, to try and find out the truth about a Welsh girl, Gethsemane Walters, whose spirit possessed his daughter Ninotchka in the late 1950's. Vanya wants Louie to find out what happened to Gethsemane and pays him with one of Yuri Gagarin's socks. Louie and his teenage assistant Calamity soon establish that a girl called Gethsemane Walters did disappear in 1955, and although a young man was convicted of her murder he never admitted to it and later escaped from prison. Louie's quest into the truth of the matter leads him to encounters with snuff philatelists, a spinning-wheel salesman who has a very strange relationship with his mother, Sospan the ice-cream vendor, a Witchfinder and God among others; Louie and Calamity end up taking a ride on the Orient Express to Hughesovka with a side-trip to Transylvania and the castle of the latest descendant of Vlad the Impaler.

For those who have not read one of Pryce's four previous novels in the Louie Knight series it is extremely difficult to convey the flavour of this book. Comic magical realism might come closest; there are hints here of the later work of Michael Moorcock, but they are just hints - it would certainly not do to imply that Pryce is anything other than a complete original, especially in the field of mystery fiction. Other descriptions might be surreal or whimsical, depending on the viewpoint of the reader. I have to admit that had it not been for the fact that I was reviewing this book I would never have completed it - the humour passed me by and I found it whimsical which is not a quality which attracts me. But at a certain point one ceases to worry too much about these things, accepts the fantastic and starts to just follow the story and plot. And however many deviations and digressions there may be - and there are a lot - in the end there is a quite reasonably worked-out plot here. It is, of course, fantastic, but within the confines of the book's world it makes sense and by the end nearly all the loose-ends have been neatly tied up. It is certainly not a stunning plot but is more than adequate.

Despite this the book is liable to provoke strong reactions in the reader. I can quite see that it would be immensely appealing to some; indeed I think that in my twenties I might have been included in that number. Pryce clearly has a fantastic imagination and he can write as well ; although once again some would say that the book is over-written, which it undoubtedly is in places - but that again is an essential component. It is often difficult to resolve the truth from the fantasy - there was for instance a town called Hughesovka, now called Donetsk, founded by the Welsh engineer John Hughes and there are some interesting stories. Pryce weaves together the imagined and the at least semi-real in a seamless way.

The fact that the characters have very little psychological depth, not to mention a complete absence of sociological realism, is to a large extent irrelevant. There are only three elements which matter in FROM ABERYSTWYTH WITH LOVE the fantasy, the humour and the plot. Unfortunately the latter, while as I have said more than competent, is buried beneath the first two for large parts of the book. So it does matter as to whether the fantasy and humour appeal to the reader; if they do then I can quite see that you would tend to love Pryce's work and it is for this reason that I recommend everyone try this or one of the other Knight books. If they do not appeal then Pryce's work will remain a fascinating curiosity. Certainly he deserves kudos for originality.

As a final thought there is a plug from The Guardian on the front cover which reads 'You'll weep and laugh on the same page' ; now laughing, if Pryce appeals to your sense of humour, I can fully understand; but weeping? The fact that the element of fantasy is so strong in the book certainly precluded any emotional response as far as I was concerned. High marks for originality and imagination, reasonable marks for plot, variable marks for humour according to the reader's response, certainly; marks for emotional engagement - I am afraid not.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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