[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine in September 2013.]
Matthew Tree, the prolific British/Catalan writer has just published SNUG, his first novel in his native English. In this work, he shows that he is one of the few writers born in England who is brave enough to write honestly about social class in that country. Influenced in part by Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart, Tree sets SNUG in a small town on an island in England and he shares the narrative between two holiday-makers: a 12 year-old boy and a racist and anti-Semitic doctor and an African man who is directly involved in creating armed conflict on the island – the main focus of the storyline. (The title of the book refers to the cosy, ultra-comfortable mentality of both the locals and visitors.) In this book, Tree (who had previously traveled in Africa) skillfully explores the theme of colonialism, based around the idea that Britain could be invaded by the very people it has previously brought into the “commonwealth” by force. The various ways that the characters respond to the threat posed by the militant Africans propels the events along to a climax that is both inventive and entertaining. How we, as humans deal with pressure, and how we easily revert to our prejudices and to a reactionary “Us-and-Them” mentality is a kind of sub-text to this well-crafted tale.
In “Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life,” JM Coetzee has used his own childhood in small town South Africa to create a work of fiction that is apparently biographical. This Nobel Prize winner takes us into his character John’s pre-teen world and through his teenage years in a very honest depiction of an awkward and self-conscious kid. His family sees themselves as middle-class and with an Anglo identity that includes John’s fascination with one of the greatest English contributions to world culture – the game of cricket. Books are one of the other main sources of joy for this often-solitary and imaginative boy, but the social injustices of the nation’s apartheid system has a sub-conscious effect on him, as does the complicated dynamics of the relationships with both his parents. John finds some psychological peace in his yearly trips to the rural farm that the family has and his appreciation of nature grows under the blazing African sky. In the final part of the book, when one of John’s relations dies, the significance of the story form as a way of keeping personal history alive is brought home to him, and this signals a possible future career as a writer.