Discussion location: Bacchus Bar, so good we came back twice.

Chosen by: First non-book club member choiceJackie, Droitwich Library

Reason for choice: Jackie won some copies of the books and very kindly donated them to us!

Review:

We seem to have read a few debut novels recently, and this certainly ranks highly amongst those.  In fact, it accomplished The Unconventional Book Club’s highest score yet, scoring above 8 by all but one member (and being the only book so far not chosen by a member, certainly made us question our own book choices!).  With one of the longest titles, most intriguing blurbs, and prettiest front covers I have seen recently, The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, or Wilfred for short, had a lot to live up to.

Set in 1924 in the small Welsh town of Narbeth, the novel opens with the unexpected proposal of the protagonist Wilfred to quiet local girl Grace, a girl he barely knows and accidentally proposes to as a result of her yellow dress and his poor communication skills.  An interesting conceit to start a novel with, the first 3 chapters roll along, albeit somewhat slowly, whilst Wilfred attempts to disengage himself from Grace. However, the story quickly gathers pace as Grace realises she is pregnant and considers hanging herself, comedically using a pile of books and silk scarf.  Instead, she tells her father who naturally assumes that Wilfred is the culprit and forces him to marry Grace.

Running simultaneously to this plotline, Wilfred meets the free-spirited Flora whilst ‘purveying’ her father’s funeral and becomes increasingly attracted to her, meeting her in secret at an abandoned sea-front cottage.  As the novel unravels, the stark contrast of Wilfred’s unhappy marriage to Grace and his inconveniently budding relationship with Flora propels Wilfred’s character development and is characterised by several incredibly well-written scenes with the two women in his life.

During the more humorous of these scenes, Grace attempts to seduce Wilfred in order to consummate their marriage and prevent him from leaving her; the result of which is a slapdash effort of tangled pyjama cords in which the reader is practically screaming at Wilfred not to submit.  The second  is a poignant and dramatic scene where Flora and Wilfred become stranded in a cave as the tide comes in, and Wilfred saves Flora by dragging her to shore as she is unable to swim.

The disparity in the two relationships is also symbolised by communication, significant of repression at the time; in Wilfred and Grace’s relationship, the lack of communication leads to a miserable marriage, with Wilfred believing his wife is “a common whore” as she does not tell him that her pregnancy was a result of abuse, and Wilfred refusing to speak to Grace for months after their wedding.  In contrast, Wilfred and Grace do not speak to each other during their first meeting in the cottage, but their lack of communication is a result of a mutual affection and deeper connection.

The issue of communication is prevalent throughout the novel, and the novel’s title itself references this, there are lots of Thoughts and Happenings, but little communication.  Grace is unable to expose that her brother abused her, whilst Flora is unable to verbalise her misery since the death of her fiancée. Wilfred is verbally incompetent, and other than his rehearsed funeral speeches is unable to express his thoughts; and as he begins to read the dictionary he buys at the beginning of the novel, he progresses, eventually breaching the ‘bed divide’ by speaking to Grace, declares to Grace’s father that he wants a divorce, to his own father that Grace’s baby is not his, and confesses to Flora that he is married. Ultimately, Wilfred rectifies his problematic situation through speaking; a subtle hint from the author that communication can resolve many problems.

In terms of Jones’ communication, the novel is an easy read that is surprisingly thoughtful and well written, with some beautiful descriptions and strong imagery. It is also sprinkled with some witty and humorous remarks, particularly relating to Wilfred’s career as a purveyor of superior funerals (nobody needs to know about their mother’s buttplug).  A minor criticism is the lack of physical descriptions of the characters, particularly Wilfred, who was difficult to picture, but this was somewhat recompensed by the the realistic representation of characters whose motivations were understandable and believably made mistakes. For example, Grace tricking somebody into marrying her, Wilfred marrying somebody he didn’t love, and Flora who could only move on when she met somebody new.

In particular, the character of Wilfred’s “da” is deeply likeable and their relationship is heart-warming, especially in Wilfred’s memories of his childhood where the two of them are trying to cope with the loss of wife and mother, both pretending not to be hungry when there was little food left. Moreover, the depiction of Wilfred and Flora’s wild abandon in the cottage, casting caution aside and cuddling on floor demonstrated an admirable rawness in their relationship.

Ultimately, the reader is happy at Wilfred and Flora’s union, though there is a certain ‘twee-ness’ of Wilfred (now happily divorced) about to propose to Flora. The novel’s finale is also slightly disappointing, in its lack of information about Grace’s future after she leaves on a train, having not told her parents that Madoc is the culprit.  Moreover, it is hard to understand how Wilfred is suddenly able to disentangle himself from his marriage without risking social ruin, yet at the beginning of the novel, he went through with the marriage for this very reason.  Despite these slight niggles, the novel has enough charm to leave the reader feeling satisfied and hopeful for Jones’ next novel.

Overall rating: 8/10

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