Reviews and Views

Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster by João Morais

This early-awaited collection of short stories from João Morais, who surely wins the prize for being the handsomest of contemporary Welsh writers, appeared last year, and readily earns the Cardiff-based story teller his place in the canon of Welsh writing (in English or Cymraeg). The setting is the gritty, urban byways, parks and pubs of the capital. Fans of Irvine Welsh and Niall Griffiths, the latter provides one of the cover encomia, will be at home here and there is much to recommend on that basis alone. A few of the stories will be familiar: to those who follow the Terry Hetherington Prize (‘The Tea Party’ and ‘Asking a Shadow to Dance’) and to readers of the New Welsh Review – ‘The Pavement Poet’ was superbly animated last year revealing Morais’s lyrical and absorbing style. This is poetic prose which begs to be read aloud. If readers find words which seem at a remove from the short stories more typical of the Welsh canon – by Gwyn Thomas, perhaps, or Rhys Davies or Dylan Thomas, to say nothing of George Ewart Evans or Alun Richards – there can be no doubt that the setting is the reason. Contemporary Cardiff, our capital city, and Morais’s hometown, is a place at odds with itself. Think of this: where once we might have stopped to listen to Toy Mic Trev and remarked on his quirky singing voice and style, now the streets abound with the homeless, the voiceless, the rejected, and the characterful – Ninja, Happy Day Man, or the Paul Robeson sound-a-like who echoes through the St David’s Centre to name just three.

Fans of the nicey-come-nicey literature nominated for literary prizes which consists of little more than a narrator telling us how well-read and how attractive the main characters are and how often they have sex (like all normal people, apparently on every other page), might well find these stories a little hard going. Perhaps even a bit too real. As well such fans should. The first time I read the collection as a whole, I must confess, sometimes the street tone and slang was a bit wearing; although as an Oxford-educated valleys boy that’s hardly too suprising – I don’t speak like that. Listen carefully to what’s being said in parts of Cardiff, though, and you soon realise that it’s authentic, not manufactured. Indeed, on a re-read, I was drawn into Morais’s world, absorbed by the portrait of our disastrous situation and by the human, affective portrait he draws of people just trying to survive against the odds. Clichéd observation? Perhaps, but no less true in this case.

My personal favourite of the stories in the collection is one of the older ones: ‘The Tea Party’, which makes me laugh and cry knowingly in equal measure. The scenario – boy and girl making out upstairs keep getting interrupted by a ‘helpful’ gran – is by no means novel, but the human story is nevertheless compelling and asks us to think carefully about habits and taking people for granted. The more familiar someone or something is, the more we need to guard against the contempt which comes as a result. The naivety of shock is well drawn, as is the easy contempt and self-absorption of youth, but it is the denouement of the tale which packs the punch. The sadness, emptiness, even purposelessness, of a family disrupted by loss. And why is it always ginger cake or biscuits that your nan brings you?

One obvious question to pose of a gathering of material such as this is whether the author’s style has evolved over a period of time? Certainly, there are works from 2011 right through to 2018 – if dates of publication are a useful guide – and it strikes me that even early on Morais was a writer of power and charm whose characters escape the confines of the short form. They linger in your mind. But just as Cardiff has declined as a coherent community in the last decade, so has Morais’s response become angrier. Characters swear more, find themselves in starker situations, and the social divisions seem much wider – they are, of course, we see that reality every day. Cardiff’s tent cities, which we have yet to call Hoovervilles, are a dramatic reminder of the failure of contemporary policy on all sides of the political divide.

This is, in sum, a profound contribution to the contemporary literature from – and about – Wales, and will make a lively addition to anyone’s shelf. I heartily recommend reading and thinking about the world João Morais has developed. Indeed, one hopes that this most effective demonstration of the short story form is not the end of Morais’s engagement with it; publishers always seek novels, I realise, but we Welsh are too gossipy for those really. We don’t sit still long enough. We are a short story nation, and in Things That Make The Heart Beat Faster we have a master in the making.