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