Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Great Master of Ecstacy by Glenda Beagan

The Great Master of Ecstacy is Glenda Beagan's third collection of short stories. The cover of the volume I have here is different from the one shown on Amazon but I like them both. This one reminds me a lot of the silhouettes which illustrate Gillian Clarke's poetry, and so for me has promising connotations.

The first long 'short story' (75 pages) has the same title as the book, and I really enjoyed it. It starts with a shaman called Kieren and the young girl he takes in. Soon Kieren is murdered but the story is not about this; it is about who Kieren was and how he came to be who he was - a story that delves into Welsh folklore and unorthodox spirituality - a fusion of ancient and modern ghosts.

The sense of place is strong: the Clwydian hills and the Welsh borderlands, a place of mountains and mountain-farming and old traditions. But it is a world that is changing, and this is brought in subtly with the mention of mobile phones and lakes that have evaporated in the warmth of the last twenty years. It is a world that I have encountered often, and I found the descriptions wonderfully evocative:

'Together they stand by the sycamore tree that grows out of the tumbledown stones of Hafod. The light is in the tree breathing and flickering. It feels like there thousands of bewildered sheep up there. The sound of their bleating reverberates all around, only now it is a chorale of something akin to bellowing. They watch as the men take hold of the sheep in their strong arms, their capable hands. Briefly Olwen cries. She thinks they're hurting the sheep. Reassured by her big brother she watches a demonstration of what looks so easy but isn't. She watches as the fleeces pile up on the truck in soft sad smudged magnificent piles. And then the sheep are out through the hurdles , scrawny and vulnerable on their suddenly too thin legs, shrugging their strange light shoulders.'
The characters in this story are also a product of this place: both the sacred and the more profane. The sacred ones are the shamans, the 'masters of ecstacy' according to the well-known expert Mircea Eliade, and can arise in a family without warning. It is a calling to the past and the landscape and cannot be denied, even when it causes suffering and family scission.

This is just the first story, although the rest are much shorter. I am looking forward to dipping in and reading more.

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