I enjoy my weekly shift on the circulation desk, because I check in dozens of books and get a good sense of what my library community is reading. Recently I checked in a new book, The World Is a Wedding, and it looked so intriguing that I looked up The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, which is the first of Wendy Jones’ novels about Wilfred Price, undertaker and funeral director in Narberth, a village in Wales, in the 1920’s. Narberth, Jones writes, is a “small, very tightly bound, ancient corner of the world.” Narberth, incidentally, is a real place.
In her novels, Jones fills it with utterly engaging characters who are dealing with the deepest human emotions. Wilfred’s apprentice-master told him “no life without a wife,” and while on a picnic with the village doctor’s daughter, Grace, he finds himself proposing. He quickly realizes that’s not really what he wants. Determined to fix things, he tells her, but by then lots of people know. Meanwhile at a funeral he meets Flora and is overcome with a desire to know her better.
If this sounds pretty simple and “cozy,” it gets much deeper and even a little darker. By the end of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, I was deeply interested in what would happen to Wilfred, Grace, and Flora. Wilfred wants very much to do what’s right in life, and he struggles to know what that is — as anyone should, who gives it any thought. Flora is still haunted by the death of her first love in WWI, and she wants very much to live fully again after years of wearying grief, but isn’t sure, precisely, what happiness will mean for her.
Grace is thrust into the world from her sheltered girlhood not by her own actions, but as she’s acted upon,but she’s no damsel in distress. She wants to take charge of her own destiny — she just needs a little kindness, even if she isn’t sure how to accept it yet. Her story develops more fully in the second novel, The World Is a Wedding. In one scene she’s at the National Gallery in London and she comes across a Rembrandt, “Self-portrait of the Artist Aged 63.” She looks at it for some time and Jones writes, “Across centuries his acceptance soothed her: what he knew of the world reassured her. . . . She had waited a long time in this city to find someone who was this human and who had nothing they wanted her to be.” That’s a passage with staying power, one I’ll return to as I think about this book again.
Jones’ fine writing and thoughtful observation of human nature give the book depth. A host of finely drawn, fully developed minor characters give it life, from Mrs. Prout, the village fortune teller, to Grace’s cold and proud mother Mrs. Reece, to Wilfred’s “da,” the local gravedigger. Narberth is easy to picture too, in Jones’ capable hands. But I may not have to imagine it forever — Downton Abbey’s production team have optioned the books for a mini-series.
It had been some time since I’d read a Europa Edition book and I thoroughly enjoyed these two. This is absorbing, thoughtful fiction that examines what people mean to each other, and how humankind’s flawed communication skills and propensity to misunderstand, and to lie to themselves and each other, can wreak havoc. It’s also about the healing power of friendship, family, and love. Highly recommended — just don’t plan to do much else when you start these, because you may want to read them over a handful of days.