I received this book from Y Lolfa in exchange for an honest review.
An Empty Chair is available here
An Empty Chair is the English translation of Haf Llewelyn’s Diffodd y Sêr; the story of Welsh First World War poet Hedd Wyn.
Aimed at “teens”, the narrative is told in the present tense from the point of view of Hedd Wyn’s (Ellis Evans’) thirteen year old sister Anni; she tells the story of the lead up to Ellis’ conscription and his time at the front.
The book is comprised of twenty perfectly proportioned chapters, and a brief epilogue. It’s not a long read but what Haf Llewelyn is able to portray is incredible; the depth of emotions and the poetry of the prose is beautifully crafted.
Within the very first page, characters are brought to life before you and are immediately relatable and tangible. You are presented with their little quirks and foibles, which are so true to life and familiar; it’s a truly wonderful establishing opening without overwhelming the reader with exposition. Haf Llewelyn continues this throughout the story; her characters are consistently individual with a powerful depth, and substantive emotions. I particularly loved how the characters evolve as the story progresses, noticeable changing as events unfold; even Anni’s narrative matures as she grows older, reminiscent of James Joyes’ A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Haf Llewelyn’s writing style is impeccable; the present tense narrative from the point of view of thirteen year old Anni brings the story to a level that a teenager reading it could truly relate to. She has managed to convey the story of a thirty year old poet soldier in such a manner that someone half his age and a world away in circumstance can care about him; he’s not some historical stranger lost in the mists of time but your gentle, quiet older brother, the one who always looks out for you and is Mam’s darling. Her language is stunningly emotive and poetic;
“Gwen Jones is a word thief. She can steal words from your mouth without you realising it.
Haf Llewelyn is able to paint powerful emotions so realistically and yet with such simplicity. Her writing is full of sympathy to subtle nuances which leave you with vivid images;
“There’s always a sigh in the air these days.”
I was quite excited to receive this book; however when I showed some friends the list of books I was being sent, one of them groaned. “Oh not Hedd bloody Wyn!”
What? What’s wrong with Hedd Wyn? I don’t even know who he is? And my friend went on to explain that you learn all about Hedd Wyn when you’re educated in Welsh as your first language; you study his life, his poetry, the lot. And incidentally, Diffodd y Sêr is taught on the Welsh Literature GCSE syllabus.
I suddenly felt cheated. This is my history, and culture, and heritage, too. Simply because I was educated in Wales through the English language shouldn’t mean I miss out on figures such as Hedd Wyn? I firmly believe this book should be taught in schools. Not only as an excellent means of making the First World War relatable to Welsh teenagers, and how the war impacted families here. But the writing and language is so well crafted it could be equally studied in English literature classes; it’s full of foreshadowing, metaphors and imagery.
“When I’m away in Litherland, and if I have to go on to the trenches, Anni, I want you to look at the stars and remember what I told you tonight. No one can snuff out the stars. Nothing can smother the brightness that’s in you: don’t let that happen.”