Newest Review: ... to's former friends, Danny, Marc, Griff and Llyr. These conversations all take place in ... more
It backed onto me, 'onest officer
Sheepshagger - Niall Griffiths
Member Name: Daisybelle
Sheepshagger - Niall Griffiths
Date: 14/11/01, updated on 14/11/01 (338 review reads)
Disadvantages: 10 quid if you buy it
Niall Griffiths is a Liverpool born Welshman as far as I can gather. He was born in 1966 and occasionally writes for the Guardian, more than that I cannot tell, despite contacting his publisher for more information. I should apologise for the title now - it's silly, irrelevant, but I couldn't resist it.
This is his second novel, and in the same way that books like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Ecstasy, or John Kings The Football Factory and Headhunters are related, indirectly by way of the same locations, and shared characters and events, that is, it could be looked upon as a sort of sequel. It isn't really though, as his debut, Grits, was very different both in format and style to Sheepshagger. Worthy of note is a quote by a critic that his work will inevitably draw comparisons with that of Cormac McCarthy. As my contemporary reading is, by choice, normally restricted to the shores I was born within, I can't comment, but gather this is a huge compliment.
Sheepshagger is the tale of Ianto, a half feral Welsh lad, raised by his Mam-cu (Grandmother) on a remote hillside smallholding. Like he did with Grits, Griffiths employs a split narrative style to deliver the story in a deliberately multi-layered fashion. This is another area in which he excels, as the reader is sucked in by it fairly quickly. The three sections generally operate as follows -
At the start of each chapter we have a short, but telling, snippet of Ianto's childhood, following on chronologically as the book progresses, and relayed in a semi-mystical combination of poetic prose loaded with pathos. This is followed by a few pages of conversation between some of Ian
to's former friends, Danny, Marc, Griff and Llyr. These conversations all take place in the present day, over the course of an evening and a few shared joints, whilst they recall Ianto's life and the terrible events that led up to his death. This then lapses back to a third person narrative, telling of the part of Ianto's life they've just discussed. These 'chapters' are in no way disjointed, as Griffiths is skilled in the construction of his writing, indeed, they run into each other - as each chapter ends the next ones return to Ianto's childhood is often an exploration of the psychology surrounding his problems covered in the previous chapter.
If this is starting to sound complicated, fear not, it's nothing of the sort. This is a flowing book, and although the parts set in the present include some Welsh dialect, it's an easy read compared with Grits, as there is only one dialect to contend with and it's not thrown at you in prolonged doses.
Another plus for many readers is that Sheepshagger is just 264 pages long, so it isn't a particularly daunting prospect. But enough of that, what's the story all about?
As a background, the characters that make up this tale are generally dropouts, dole-cheats and drug users, but that's not to say they're unlikeable people. It all happens along the coast of Cardigan Bay, from Aberystwyth up to Barmouth, under the shadow of Cader Idris, a beautiful area of the country for any of you who haven't visited. Ianto's tale is a sad one though, and it's not giving away the plot to let you know it ends with his demise, after his involvement in several murders, as you are made aware of these facts very early on. Ianto's story is that of a tormented loser in many respects. Having said all that, it's not a mire of sadness. There are plenty of good times recalled, where the friends party, rave, rob and laugh, and Griffiths' knack for
finding humour in surprising places keeps things ticking along nicely.
Ianto's friends, such as party-girl Gwenno, and the psychopathic Roger, also from Grits, do the best they can, but his past conspires against him. He is physically repugnant, unclean, and uncommunicative, apart from a penchant for singing 'Nobody loves me, everybody hates me', but he loves animals and his friends. His former home is owned by rugby-shirted English incomers, who really don't give two figs for the Welsh, and this is where the title comes in. There's no bestiality in this book, just beastly behaviour from people who should know better as he is driven away as a sheepshagger who should know his place. This is where the political side of Griffiths comes into its forte, pointing out, amongst other things, that you can only taunt and provoke a people so far, before they will snap. Ianto represents more than just himself, but to think that this is the point of the tale would be to underestimate Griffiths greatly.
This is a book about human nature, and how cruel it can be, how kind it can be, how it can go badly awry, and most importantly, how we're all cursed with it. The different perspectives from which events are viewed encourage the reader to think about what Griffiths has to say and make their own minds up about morality and perceptions of morality.
So what did I think of the book? While it isn't exactly slow to get going, it did take until I reached about a third of the way through before the hook caught me, and it became un-put-downable. This is about the time that I realised the book was heading in an inevitable direction, and it had the makings of a true classic. I'm not saying this lightly, but having read Grits I thought that Niall Griffiths had the potential to be one of the UK's best contemporary writers, with Sheepshagger he has made a quantum leap in that direction as this is a fantastic book. I don't
know how all those Bookers and Whitbread's work, but this is a better book than any Booker winner I've read, and as such I would wholeheartedly recommend it. As an aside, I haven't read that many, but they include Amsterdam, Paddy Clarke Ha, ha, ha, How late it was, how late, and Schindlers Ark if that's any indication of how highly I rate this.
It's fair to say that Griffiths writing appeals to me personally so much for a number of additional reasons - I spent a lot of time in this area of Wales as a child, and this flip-side to my distant, childhood memories is almost like an alternate reality. I've also given my body a more than average share of abuse, and I'm half-Welsh, but dislocated from all of my origins, as I have been since I was a child. These are also pet topics of his, mental restlessness and the difficulties of having ill-defined roots, so if I've over-enthused and you dont like the book, that's my cop-out <grin>
Interestingly, his first novel, Grits, is apparently going to be filmed for television, and it's with eager anticipation I await this, as I don't envy the director their task with it, because of it's complex style, so even if you don't fancy reading Griffiths work, keep your eye out for it on television as it may be more appealing than I've made it sound. I wrote a piece on Grits a while ago if you'd like to hear more about him.
Well that's that. Great author, great book - simple. The only warning I would offer is that Griffiths is free with his use of colloquialisms, and if you don't like that be aware that colourful language abounds. Oh, I lied, here's another warning. The price on the back of my first edition copy from Jonathon Cape is a tenner, good job I got it from the library, eh, but the good news it's being released by Vintage on 7th February 2002, for £6.99.