Eloquent and insightful, the English adaptation of the award winning Welsh novel The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros is a memorable read. As I turned the last page of this deeply affecting story I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again.
Set in the year 2026 this post nuclear apocalypse novel is told in a dual narrative by fourteen year old Dylan and his mother Rowenna. Together with Dylan’s baby sister, Mona, they are surviving alone in the isolated village of Nebo in north-west Wales. Six years previously their lives were changed irrevocably by The End, when the electricity went off for good following a catastrophe during a nuclear war. Mother and son record their thoughts, both of life before and their struggles for survival, in a notebook they find which Dylan names The Blue Book of Nebo. Rowenna and Dylan share a close and loving relationship but through their journal entries the reader learns both the secrets they keep from each other and their fears, hopes and hidden emotions.
It is fascinating to watch how both mother and son develop. Dylan matures, becoming capable, taking on responsibility and protective of both his mum and his baby sister. There is initially a lack of worldly understanding due to his situation and his young age when everything changed and yet through his experiences he discovers a sense of self, fitting in well to this new life and it is in some ways a coming of age for this young man. Dylan has few memories of before The End and it is through Rowenna’s writing that we learn of the panic and the breakdown of normal society. Rowenna was a quiet and reserved young woman and possibly overlooked previously. Her shyness and insecurities were a barrier and limited her in some ways. Now she is a “warrior” preserving what matters most to her. The resilience and determination she displays are impressive and I was moved by her attitude and her admirable fortitude.
This story is at times raw and heartbreaking and at others tender and hopeful. Although Rowenna and Dylan face loss, privation and hardship, this is balanced with a shared love and understanding. Some aspects of their experience resonate with the reader even more due to the book’s timely nature as we face the ongoing effects of the Covid pandemic. Key to the story is an exploration of our understanding of what matters most. There are many layers to this story and to the ideas and themes it conveys. It portrays the importance of our shared humanity and the balance between what we actually need and what we want or indeed expect from life. When everything is stripped away and survival is highlighted people may discover previously unknown strengths. Both Rowenna and Dylan display resilience and an appreciation of the natural world and their place in it.
The importance of books, faith, spirituality and the value of preserving the Welsh language run through the heart of this profoundly affecting story and I now want to learn more about some of the Welsh books mentioned. This fascinating interview with the author has helped me and you may find it of interest too.
Manon Steffan Ros had created a remarkable story which encourages thought, discussion and further reading. Although a novella aimed at the YA audience this is an excellent read for adults of all ages; great for book clubs I think. Published by Firefly Press on 6th January and highly recommended. Thank you very much to the publishers for my proof copy.