What is Purefinder, the first novel by Ben Gwlachmai and published by Cosmic Egg, about? It’s a more complex question to answer then it sounds. Is it about Purefoy, a ‘pure finder’ who, stumbling away from heart-breaking news, is pointed to as a murderer, and is taken on a Dantean journey through London by a terrifying moustache’d Irish man? Is it about the fetishization of our Victorian past? Is it about the living geography of the city of London? Is it about grief and violence, about brotherhood, about survival and death, about the impact of a corrupt political elite on all our lives?
It’s about all these things, of course, and much more.
Disclaimer – I do know Ben, who wrote this book, but haven’t known him that long and if I didn’t honestly like it I just wouldn’t have reviewed it. I hardly ever do reviews on this blog, as regular readers will know. But I really liked this book and so thought, what the hell. I’ll write something down saying so. Also, we are publishing stable mates, both being in the John Hunt stable (buy my book!).
Purefinder is an immersive read. It topples you head first in to that ‘living geography’ of London, taking you through its twisted streets – often frightening, sometimes beautiful (discovering the feel of a forest in the heart of Soho), always surprising. There’s a charm in reading this book as someone who once lived in London, although that doesn’t mean those beyond the M25 won’t find that excitement of recognition and difference either. London is a city that lives and breathes in history, the footsteps of millions lies beneath that veneer of tarmac and pavement. You feel the ghosts around you when you walk through some of its older, idiosyncratic streets and you recognise that feeling in the maps that Purefinder draws for you.
It’s immersive in another way too – in the way Gwalchmai writes the physicality of Purefoy’s journey. Sickness, pain, aches, dehydration – Purefoy experiences the day through the prism of these disorders, and it can make for an unsettling and dizzying read. The visceral descriptions of his physical feeling are unflinching, as the physical reflects the emotional turmoil of grief, surprised joy, fear and desperation.
Purefoy’s ‘guide’ is a violent Irishman. From the beginning, he is overbearing and frightening. But he also has moments of charm and wit – nothing is one-dimensional in this book. We’re not quite sure where he has come from, or where he is going, but we know where he is leading Purefoy. He has flashes of kindness, but he is too unpredictable for you or Purefoy to ever feel safe.
The London Gwalchmai writes is populated with memorable characters. There are women working as prostitutes, labourers and lamp-lighters, Opium dens and Polish men and clients and pimps. It is a violent world but it is also a world of friendship, alliances, and brotherhood.
And then there are Flash and Gideon, two men whose hands show no signs of work. Flash and Gideon are the elite, they are the ones with power. It’s obviously Gwalchmai’s intention that through these characters we recognise the political analogy between power and poverty in Purefinder’s world, and our own present. It’s the same with the Cabinet gang. This could be a risky strategy, but he pulls it off.
Because you don’t have to read Flash and Gideon and the Cabinet as political allegories (is that the right word? So long since I reviewed fiction!). You can read them simply as characters who reside in the world of the novel and in the world created by the novel. This means that while their role and their voices create another and important dimension to your reading, it also allows the novel to live on into the future. It still works even if you are not engaged with today’s political personalities. In this way you get the best of both worlds – a novel that engages with and criticises our political establishment, and a novel that is packed with original and vivid characters that populate Victorian London, and continue to populate our London of today.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sly references to the present situation in a book set in the past can be clumsy and unwelcome, but in Purefinder they enrich and excite your reading experience. And although I don’t agree with all the political arguments in the novel, that is hardly a negative. It is about provoking thought and debate.
The relationships between men are important in the novel, and not least the relationship between Purefoy and his father. This is a particularly difficult and heart-breaking part of the story, as Purefoy remembers his father’s mental breakdown precipitated by that other war in Afghanistan. Punctuated with fragments of Welsh language songs and phrases, fragments that reflect the fragmentation of memory, the recollections are frightening and moving.
The shape and sounds of words are important to the novel too. We are reminded how to pronounce words, we are prompted to look at how words look to mean one thing but might mean another. It’s all part of that immersive experience – asking us to take notice of how we are reading as well as what we are reading.
Purefinder is about all of those things in the first paragraph and more. It can be read in many ways and it invites you to explore all those ways. The characterisation is rich, that ‘living geography’ of the city pulls you in, and the political themes and analogies are cleverly drawn.
Not bad for a first novel hey? Well done Ben!