A complicated world

Carneddau landscape by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru (photo C A Lovegrove)

The Gift by Peter Dickinson.
Illustrated by Gareth Floyd.
The Children’s Book Club 1974 (1973)

“Were you knowing you had the gift, Davy? […] It is said to run in your family—Dadda’s family. Often it misses a generation. But usually there is one of your blood alive who can see pictures in other people’s minds.”

Chapter 1, Granny. The Gift.

The Gift is a powerful story for teenage readers from the pen of Peter Dickinson, a novel that works at several levels to appeal to many ages, emotional capacities and intellects. It also crosses the permeable frontiers between fantasy, social realism, and thriller, as well as border-hopping between North Wales and England’s South Midlands.

Davy Price is the youngest in a dysfunctional family, with a father who’s a fly-by-night chancer, a mother who occasionally ‘disappears’ on holiday with male acquaintances, an older brother who’ll become involved with a splinter group of Welsh nationalists, and a sister who doesn’t stand fools gladly but whom Davy values as a confidante.

After one particular familial upheaval the three children get dumped on the father’s mother — the trio’s fierce Welsh granny — and her gentle husband, known as Dadda, on a Welsh hill farm near a disused slate quarry. This is when Davy first discovers he has the ‘gift’ of seeing other people’s vision, the legend of how certain generations of the family have it, and how it can in fact be more a curse than otherwise. It will take a major crisis to bring things to a head, and a situation of great danger which may or may not free Davy of his dubious talent.

‘Farmers on the Carneddau’ by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum Wales (photo C A Lovegrove)

A few years later, when Davy is 13 or 14, the family finally seems to have settled down in a new-build but still developing town in the Midlands. Though Davy, Penny and Ian’s dad is still wheeler-dealing in the background things are seemingly going well — until Davy starts experiencing unnerving visions whenever he is in a relaxed state. His inner eye is subjected to images from what the individual is seeing but they’re shot through with vivid colours and, when the individual is clearly disturbed, angry squiggly lines spreading rapidly over the observed scene.

The individual, whom Davy dubs Wolf, is connected to two other people Davy designates Mr Black Hat and Monkey, and soon the youngster realises they’re further connected to his father and the construction site which Davy is studying for a geography project. After further dramas the family return to the isolated Welsh farm for their Christmas holidays, but past events are destined to catch up to them all in a nail-biting conclusion.

I hung on to my copy of this after I first read it three decades ago, realising that although I’d thoroughly enjoyed it I hadn’t really understood its nuances and undercurrents. It’s a dark tale, to be sure, but I knew that Dickinson creates really believable individuals and plonks them into situations which test their imagination, courage and fortitude. What I did lack at the time was a fuller appreciation of its context and its cultural backstory.

In some ways Dickinson’s novel was prescient, to some extent anticipating the activities of Meibion Glyndŵr (the Sons of Glendower) from 1979 in firebombing English holiday homes in Wales, but also reflecting the more paramilitaristic approach of other clandestine groups at the time. Ian’s enthusiastic allegiance to his unaffiliated cell doesn’t extend to a reverence for history, but Davy knows that his gift is due to an incident in the Berwyn mountains, during the guerilla war waged by Owain Glyndŵr for independence in the years around 1400.

Incidentally, Dickinson composed a splendid alliterative “translation” of a Welsh poem about Glyndŵr, to suggest what led to the acquisition of the gift:

By Maen Mynor stayed Glyn Dwr’s standard. | Galaes his hawk gripped at his gauntlet. |Through the eyes of his hawk he viewed hill and valley. | He saw the Saxons scurry before his soldiers…

Chapter 2, Dadda, The Gift.

But there are also traditions nearer in time that Dickinson draws into his narrative: the tenuous living to be got by hill farmers; fading memories of a time when Welsh women wore hats “black and tall and pointy, like a witch’s” says Davy, and lace shawls; the knowledge that working the slate quarries was dangerous work, especially when it involved explosives; a sensitivity towards language, and intonation, and poetry.

And through everything Dickinson has a skill of evoking individuals who, however flawed they are — and some are very flawed — deserve a modicum of pity, especially if their lives have involved abuse, and betrayals of trust, and an absence of sympathy.

At the very end, when everything appears resolved and the dust starts to settle, there comes a little dialogue between Penny and Davy, indicating that fiction can and should imitate life to elicit our acceptance of the story. Penny has been saying that if things bought on credit hadn’t been insured then the family as buyer still had to pay if the goods had been destroyed or damaged. Davy is outraged:

“That can’t be right. It’s not our fault. It wouldn’t be fair.” — “I don’t know,” said Penny. “It’s a complicated world.”

Chapter 11, Dick. The Gift.

Complicated indeed, as is this superb but little-known novel.


Image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

A read for Wyrd & Wonder, which begins today, and also for the Wales Readathon, which took place in March.

15 thoughts on “A complicated world

    1. I have a one-volume copy, possibly acquired secondhand, with all three titles, after remembering I’d enjoyed The Weathermonger in the late 60s or early 70s; but as it was pre-blog days when I read the trilogy I am, like you, keen to reread it.

      The Gift has been reissued in paperback several times, so you should be able to acquire a copy easily. My hardback copy was issued by Foyles in a book club edition, advertised at 60p instead of the publishers price of £1.50!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you, when so many county libraries have been divesting themselves of stock deemed surplus to requirements because forgotten — until they’re remembered and it’s too late. Hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Peter Dickinson is SUCH an under-rated author. Someone needs to do a serious study of his work… (oh wait… I’m a children’s lit scholar…). I always loved The Gift and you make me think I should reread it. Have you read The Seventh Raven? That’s another extremely thoughtful political thriller.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t even started considering his thrillers, Debbie, but I hope I’ll get round to them eventually!

      I admired (but didn’t exactly enjoy) his son John’s YA trilogy beginning with The Cup of the World, but as I feel I missed the point of this dark fantasy series first time round I may have to try it again…

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      1. The Seventh Raven is one of his YA novels, not an adult thriller, but it does concern itself with political themes – it’s about a choir group held captive by terrorists in a cathedral. The narrator is a teenage girl who is one of the choir members. It’s wonderful. I also highly recommend Ava if you haven’t read that.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. And me too, his line drawings as well as his paintings with palette knives — we’re so lucky that so much of his work is available to view in the National Museum of Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru. I thought these bleak pieces, even though they’re set further west in Snowdonia in Gwynedd, captured the bleak snowy landscapes of the Berwyn range where the final scenes of the novel are set.

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  2. Oh my goodness – just when I’d cleared out my TBR – your excellent reviews start to fill it up again! This does look really really good though. I think I will try to track down a copy. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found it good enough to reread, Jo, if that’s a recommendation; while Goodreads gives it a score of nearly 4 stars, and Librarything.com 3.5 stars, I think it’s a little more profound than some readers have rated it though not necessarily worth a perfect 5 stars. There’ve been quite a few paperback editions so it shouldn’t be hard to acquire a copy. And I’m sorry-not-sorry to cause your TBR to lurch into the red again!

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