In 1966, in Aberfan, Wales, an unthinkable disaster struck: a tip slide devastated the town, burying houses, schools, farms and people. 116 children were killed, creating an intolerable void in the lives of all who inhabited the small mining town. Author Katherine Leiner, a teenager at the time of the tragedy, joined the world in communal grief over the tremendous loss. The real-life story of the disaster haunted Leiner her entire life.
Out of that disaster was born the character Alys Davies. Using Aberfan's great misfortune as a backdrop, Leiner wrote DIGGING OUT, a story about Alys Davies, a child who survived being buried by the mudslide, only to find herself buried alive in so many other ways later in life.
Alys is one of only a handful of children who are pulled out alive from the mire that covered the town. She struggles for months, even years, after the event to physically and psychologically recover from the loss of her best friend and a large percentage of the town. In the aftermath, the entire community suffers. Her father, held responsible by many of the townsfolk, turns to alcohol to quell his personal demons. Her mother retreats inward, becoming more and more aloof from her children. As neighbors, family and friends try to come to grips with their suffocation, Alys, too, finds her world becoming narrower. One young man, Evan, befriends her, falls in love with her and supports her throughout. He becomes her raison d'etre, and yet, somehow, this isn't enough for her.
Alys is the walking wounded and seeks escape as the only means to rise above the emotional muck that is keeping her --- and all those around her --- down. Still a teen, she follows her older sister to the United States, where she eventually marries, starts a family and forges a career as a poet. Thirty years pass and it takes another family tragedy to make Alys realize that changing geography never truly helped her dig out from under her past. And, in fact, she has only managed to bury herself all over again by ignoring the past and even ignoring the truth that is her present.
Leiner's language is beautiful and powerful. One cannot help but feel swallowed up from the very beginning by the overwhelming loss experienced by all the main characters. There is an oppression and sadness in Aberfan that Leiner's evocative writing brings right to the surface of the story and maintains throughout all the flashback scenes. And, conversely, when Alys returns home finally to face her parents and the town, the words on the page open up, as if Moses just parted the waters. The release is as refreshing as the mudslide was suffocating. In DIGGING OUT, Leiner reminds us that loss, to whatever degree, is an integral part of life, and to survive it one has to learn how to swim, how to keep one's head above the muddy waters.
Leiner's debut novel has me looking forward to reading her future work. Clearly she is an author I want to keep my eye on. I think you will want to too.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on December 29, 2010
- Publication Date: March 2, 2004
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: NAL Trade
- ISBN-10: 045121160X
- ISBN-13: 9780451211606