Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Seasoning by Manon Steffan Ross

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Manon Steffan Ross is the author of the haunting Llyfr Glas Nebo – winner of both the Medal at the 2018 Eisteddfod Genedlaethol and the 2019 Welsh Book of the Year.

The Seasoning is an earlier novel, translated from the Welsh (original title Blasu – literally ‘taste’) by the author herself.

It begins with the central character, Pegi, sharing a quiet moment with her son after the party he threw for her eightieth birthday. He gives her a notebook in which he hopes she will record some of her memories, and afterwards she goes for a walk through the little village where she has lived all her life, with shadows of the past lurking in every corner.

From there we are taken straight back into an account of her life – beginning at the age of eight when, filthy and half starved, she flees the house where her mother sits rocking herself in a corner to beg for help from a neighbour.

Each chapter begins with a recipe, and each is recounted by a different person whose life Pegi touched and who interacted with her via food. We meet her grandparents, her husband, her sons, her best friend – but also people whom she met only casually.

Most people fall under the spell of Pegi’s genuine kindness and generosity. But a few sense a darkness within her. Certainly the fact that she nearly starved as a child has left her with an relationship with food that veers at times from the joyous to the unhealthy. And Pegi herself is haunted by the fear that she could one day follow her mother’s terrible path. But it is only in the final pages of the book that we learn the heartbreaking truth at the core of that darkness.

In a series of tender and vivid vignettes, Ross addresses love and friendship, motherhood, nurturing and neglect, mental illness, physical illness and ageing. Her wonderful language conjures up the smells and tastes and textures of the food she describes, as well as the rugged landscapes and changing seasons of North Wales.

I read this book in the original Welsh, which made for a very different experience. In English, I read in great gulps, racing through chapter after chapter. But as a Welsh learner, I am forced to go slowly, unravelling each sentence word by word. Perhaps that is why Ross’s images plant themselves so deeply in my mind. But knowing she herself has translated the book, I have no hesitation in recommending the version in English.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels that address mental illness, particularly eating disorders

Perfect Accompaniment: Cacan Sinsir / Sticky Ginger Cake

Genre: Literary Fiction, Welsh Fiction, Welsh Language Books, Books in Translation

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