In this post, Megan Farr reviews The Blue Book of Nebo, a post-apocalyptic YA novel, by award-winning Welsh author Manon Steffan Ros. Ros adapted the English version from her original Welsh novel.
(In Part 2, Megan interviews Ros about both the writing of the novel and the process of adapting it to English and the screen.)
The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros is a post-apocalyptic YA novel adapted into English by the author from her original Welsh language, prize-winning book Llyfr Glas Nebo (Y Lolfa 2018). The novel follows the experiences of a parent and child surviving a nuclear war in a similar vein to McCarthy’s The Road. Here it is a mother, Rowenna, and son, Dylan, who live in Nebo in north-west Wales, on the coast overlooking Anglesea or Ynys Môn. They write their story in alternating entries in a diary, The Blue Book of Nebo, which they begin writing eight years after ‘The End’ which took place when Dylan was six.
Between the two narratives we discover what happened in the lead up to ‘The End’ and how they survived over the next two years. It is a story about the struggles of physical survival and preservation, but also of language and culture. The resourceful mother, Rowenna, prepares for survival by stock-piling food, seeds, water purification tablets and information on laying animal traps, as well as books from the library, in both English and Welsh. Rowenna has lost touch with her mother tongue, but she is determined to maintain Dylan’s bilingualism through encouraging reading and writing in Welsh and in the process is reacquainted with the language herself.
Welsh language and its history is a key theme which is developed further in the English adaptation, as we find out more about Rowenna’s past and her experiences of language through her difficult relationships at home and school and the enduring influence of English culture. Their neighbours’ house, ‘Sunningdale’, is inhabited by a retired English couple, Susan and David Thorpe, who don’t speak Welsh. When Rowenna questions why she chose to take the Welsh language books from the library, David comments “I suppose instinct makes you save that which you’re most in danger of losing.”
Dylan decides to call their diary ‘The Blue Book of Nebo’ in the same tradition as The Black Book of Carmarthen or The Red Book of Hergest, “important books that said something about our history. And now is a part of history, isn’t it?” The notebook is dark blue, described as ‘Bible-black’ alluding to Wales’ most famous English-language poet and introducing another key theme in the book, faith. There are biblical references throughout. In a premonition just before ‘The End’, Rowenna describes Dylan playing in the school playground “His arms outstretched like a man crucified.” He is portrayed as a Christ-like figure, sacrificed and then reborn to start another life, in a new world. Rowenna is suspicious and afraid of religion and faith, but for Dylan Bible stories like Noah’s Ark and the Gospels, and the figure of Jesus, or Iesu, provide great comfort and help him to understand his place in this new world.
The novel is a reflection on parenthood, consumerism, faith, language, and class, seen through the cynical eyes of the mother and the more hopeful outlook of her son. Both are careful to preserve their own truths and protect each other from hurt. The result is “A curiously sweet-tempered novel that finds the upside of global catastrophe.” Kirkus Review.
The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros is published in the US by Deep Vellum (Fall 2021) and in the UK by Firefly Press (January 2022).
Megan Farr is Marketing and Publicity Manager at Firefly Press and currently researching into ‘Strategic Action for Internationalisation of the Children’s Publishing Sector in Wales’, as part of a creative industries PhD at the Mercator Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, funded by the KESS II Europea