At the beginning of the year, I made some bookish resolutions. One of them was poached directly from author Gwenda Bond and it was this –
“So my literary resolution for 2013 is to buy a book each month that I’ve never heard of before encountering it in the bookstore and give it a try.”
I might not hit Bond’s ‘one per month’ target but the book shop voucher I was given for Christmas was burning a hole in my pocket. Deliberately avoiding books that I’d heard about or read reviews for, I came across The Thoughts & Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones. Obviously the indulgent title caught my eye. Then I opened the book to the first chapter – ‘The Yellow Dress’. That sealed the deal. I have a bit of a thing for yellow.
Wendy Jones’s debut novel is set in 1924, in the small Welsh village of Narberth. It’s the story of Wilfred Price, a naive young undertaker who one day day takes a picnic with a girl in a yellow dress. Wilfred wonders how the dress fastens and how the girl, Grace, gets in and out of it. Caught up in the moment, he proposes to her and she accepts him. Wilfred immediately regrets his proposal and is on the verge of extricating himself when events take a surprising turn.
‘Wilfred was beginning to realize that the profession of undertaker wasn’t much use to him when it came to matters of romance.’
There are some lovely analogies in this book – Grace’s beekeeping and particularly Wilfred’s purchase of a dictionary, both things that are nicely incorporated into the main thread of the plot.
“Wilfred knew the words for undertaking, the unusual words: pall, formaldehyde, catafalque, moment of committal and veronica, he even knew columbarium, but he wanted a better vocabulary…. The answer, Wilfred realized, with the suddenness of inspiration, was to buy a dictionary and read it.”
And so Wilfred begins reading the dictionary, memorising new words. However he doesn’t get past the letter ‘A’ when his simple, quiet life changes and the delicate story of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals unfolds.
“What I need, he thought, is another kind of dictionary, one that tells me what to say when I don’t know what to say. Wilfred wondered what words such a dictionary would have. Phrases such as ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Forgive me’, – even that most difficult of phrases, ‘I was wrong.’ It wouldn’t be a very big dictionary, maybe even only one page with a list entitled Difficult Things to Say. The words he really needed were the ones his heart spoke. ‘I don’t love you.’ ‘I made a mistake.’ …. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?”
You could unfairly label Wilfred as spineless or fickle however this is a story of expectation, duty and love. Given the context of the story – the time (1924), the place (a small village) and social custom (where propriety is all-important) – Wilfred’s actions were understandable and proper. And don’t be fooled – there are some gritty issues in this book.
Will there be a movie? I hope so. I can see it already. Which tells me that Jones has created vivid characters and a well-observed picture of life in a small village.
3/5 A simple, charming and elegant story.
There is a super description of breakfast shared between Wilfred and his father, ‘da’ –
“Wilfred’s father had cooked his son’s favourite meal: fried eggs and cockles, with bacon and sausages, and slices of fried potato they called Specials. Wilfred had loved Specials since he was a tiny boy and his Auntie Blodwen had taught his father how to cook them: “Peel the new tyatas, slice them into thick circles,” Auntie Blodwen had instructed, “then fry them in a lump of lard till they’re golden brown. That’ll put some fat on the boy. He’s got legs on him like a flamingo.”…ever since, Wilfred and his da had eaten Specials every Sunday morning, on their birthdays, after a night at the graveyard or whenever they needed strengthening.”
However, my favourite food reference comes at the very beginning of the story when Grace serves trifle. At it’s most basic, I’m not a fan of trifle – too much sloppy custard and soggy cake. However, there’s a new breed of gourmet trifles – delicate flavour combinations and careful layers. I like this Dark Berry Trifle from my favourite food-porn mag, Australian Gourmet Traveller.