I think I was directed to Cynan Jones’s stuff from a best-of list, which always seems to me to feel vaguely like cheating. Still, Everything I Found on the Beach was definitely a worthwhile read, and its focus on white, masculine, working class life felt compelling and real.
- At first I struggled with the coast, as I kept assuming it was Ireland. The coast was actually Wales, although part of the plot comes from Irish drug smugglers hiring Welsh (and immigrants) to bring in drugs.
- It starts with a body on a beach, which turns out to be that of Hold, a Welshmen who loves fishing but has seen his life crumble financially with the death of his best friend Danny.
- Hold also takes on Danny’s wife and child in a non-spousal kind of way, adding a bit of depth to his character.
- We also follow Grzegorz, a recent Polish immigrant who thought that England offered he and his family a way off of his grandfather’s declining farm.
- Grzegorz’s family is also prominently described in ways that both helped me understand EU migration and gave me a better feel for the misery that can accompany these kinds of moves and uprootings.
- The novel is locked clearly into a capitalist structure – Grzegorz wants to leave the slaughterhouse at which he works, someone hired there because no one else will take the job, Hold wouldn’t have to worry about anything except fishing and hunting except for Danny’s sister who wants to be out of the house that Danny’s family lives in after his death, and the Irish mobsters are working the black market selling cocaine.
- Jones sympathizes with the working class status of the three men, helping us understand why they can’t go forward due to financial barriers that they all seek to leap with illegal activities that promise rich rewards. Only one of the three survives (the Big Man, who murders Hold after Hold tries to sell them the cocaine he found when he found Grzegorz’s boat).
- There are no real villains – we get inside the head of the murderer, who is along just for muscle, and the other small-time mobster is caught up in his own struggles as well. And there are no easy stereotypes – Danny dies of some sort of cancer, his sister-in-law makes sense wanting to buy the family out fo the house because she needs the money, Grzegorz’s ambition makes sense, just as the customs of his new country don’t. The biggest villain might be the large companies that dominate the new EU, but even their presence is not all that clear. Grzegorz’s family move is at least partially driven by the inability of the small family farm to compete, but the pastoral paradise of that farm, one in which his grandparents controlled their own production even if they didn’t make much outside money, is portrayed as almost utopian to Grzegorz and his family after they are stuck in England for a few years.
- I found the scenes of the Polish families particularly powerful. The families band together in the best ways possible, but they get in trouble for using pieces of the animals that the slaughterhouse is just going to throw away, and they miss their customs. Their sense of comfort is not helped by the “POLES OUT” graffiti they see across the street, either.
- The simple desire to just live their lives keeps screaming from these pages. Hold can make a living fishing and hunting, and he clearly enjoys being on the sea. He’s painted as a very sympathetic person, someone who wants to be a masculine presence in Danny’s son’s life, and we hear in his head the ways in which he tries to prevent rabbits from feeling pain as he shoots them. His connections to the land are traditional (as are Grzegorz’s grandparents’), and thus doomed.
- Jones also writes in a style that moved the novel along. He provided lots of description of the environment, and of his characters’ internal monologue, and little of interactions between people. The inability to articulate feelings is a key element of the masculine inheritance of these characters.
I look forward to reading more of Cynan Jones’s work.