Carol Swain’s Gast: Who are we when we are gone?

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Gast By Carol Swain

What is the sum total of a person when that person is gone? Are the memories of them what counts? Their deeds? The property left behind? The mysteries they left behind? These are the central questions of Carol Swain’s Gast, and what answers do show themselves might leave you struggling.

The story follows the wanderings of Helen, a new resident on a Welsh farm and a bird watcher who documents her sightings. A neighbor farmer mentions a “rare bird” that took its own life. This captures Helen’s imagination and she slowly decides to go to a neighboring farm to look for signs of it. What she finds isn’t a bird, but an abandoned farm, the former property of Emrys, who had recently committed suicide.

Helen learns more about Emrys through the talking animals on the farm. They don’t actually understand a lot about Emrys’ life, since they don’t clearly comprehend every affectation of human life, but they do fill in some gaps for Helen about his possible torments, though each gap filled in many ways creates a wider hole without answers to fill it.

What happens is that Helen begins rummaging through the detritus of Emrys’ life, and watching the destruction of what he has left behind. It becomes clear he was an outsider, and Helen’s investigation and attempt to come to terms with Emrys’ end begin to offer her a direct connection with the area’s past, something she doesn’t have on her own. It’s a bond created not only with the deceased resident, but with the animals who struggle to explain his disappearance, and a way of settling Helen into this new life.

What’s most impressive about Swain’s story is its quiet nature, and its delicate portrayal of darkness. Instead of going for the obvious and imposing gruesome imagery to match the backdrop of macabre, Swain portrays the setting as a far more subtle place to contain unease, at time bucolic even with the fog of despair that sometimes hangs there. It neither becomes a story of Emyrs’ strangeness or Helen’s alienation — instead it takes both of those and creates a fable of belonging, and of legacy sometimes being more about the person who receives it than gives it.


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