Wanting to read at least one book for this year’s Dewithon, hosted by Paula on Book Jotter, I cast around for something that might work at this time when my normal reading patterns remain fragile. I settled on The Seasoning by Manon Steffan Ros. Blasu, to use its original title, was written in Welsh and published in 2013 when it won the fiction prize of the Wales Book of the Year awards. Ros’s English translation was published in 2015 as The Seasoning.
I anticipated a warm and simple read. The story is essentially the narrative of Peggy’s life – lived almost entirely in her native village in north Wales – and is presented in retrospect as is often the case. At her eightieth birthday party, Peggy is given a beautiful notebook by her son, who asks that she records her life story. Peggy struggles to respond. The key which unlocks the story of her life is a recipe she finds tucked in a drawer. Food was hugely important to Peggy. Peggy’s life is then revealed, chronologically, by those who have populated it, each one prefaced by a recipe which featured in that person’s connection with her. A simple structure, it seemed to me, indicative of a straightforward and cosy tale. On some levels it is just that.
Simplicity at its best belies what lies beneath. There is a darkness to Peggy’s life; the book touches on a number of difficult contemporary themes. I’ve encountered books where such themes feel shoehorned into the story for dubious reasons. In The Seasoning, I felt these themes were handled deftly, with a light and compassionate touch.
One storyline did feel too easy: what I know to be a lengthy, often challenging and uncertain process felt too simple, too off pat. Some choices in the translating jarred for me. One word in particular and certain descriptions of Peggy felt over-used; I wanted variety, a richer recipe.
So yes, there were flaws but they were far outweighed by the reading experience as a whole. This is a book to be read slowly – indeed, to be savoured as befits the foodie allusions. I am not Welsh of course, but I felt its Welshness. Not just in the sense of community it conveys or in its overtly Welsh references, but in its heart and soul. For me, it is a book with soul. It is peppered with sadness, spiced with joy, salted with melancholy, leavened by humanity. I finished it with a gentle sigh and the knowledge that I shall read it again.
Manon Steffan Ros has written numerous award-winning novels for children and adults. I would love to read more from her. No doubt there are reasons why more of her work is not (yet) available in English. Her most recent book, Llyfr Glas Nebo, has won many awards. It already has an English title and it seems that an English version will come. A short video of Manon is here, in which she reads an extract from this book in Welsh, which is beautiful to hear, followed by a longer extract in English. Publication can’t come soon enough for me.
I’m also delighted to have been reminded of Honno, who published The Seasoning. Many more of their titles are now on my wishlist.
My thanks to Paula for once again hosting this event.