I am the Mask Maker and other stories by Rhiannon Lewis

I enjoyed Rhiannon Lewis’ My Beautiful Imperial, a fascinating novel set in 19th century Wales and Chile, so I was pleased to receive a copy of her new book, I am the Mask Maker and other stories. This is a collection of eleven short stories, some of which have previously been shortlisted or won prizes in literary competitions and been published in other anthologies. The stories are very varied (apart from two which work together as a pair and provide opposite perspectives on the same event). The settings range from a farm in 1960s Wales and a nursing home for the elderly to a bookshop in London and a version of heaven where the angels have decommissioned their halos and are getting ready to leave. Some of the stories are funny and uplifting; others are more poignant, but every one of them left me with a lot to think about.

I find it difficult to write about the individual stories in collections like this without giving away too many of the surprises that each one contains, so I will just briefly highlight a few that I thought were particularly impressive. These include Piano Solo, the story of an unhappy, middle-aged school teacher whose life takes on new meaning when he sits down at his piano, and Being Bob, in which an Oscar-winning actor takes the place of his driver, Bob, for the day – with unexpected results. But I think my favourite story was The Significance of Swans, an eerie tale of disappearances following the sighting of seven flying swans. I was so intrigued by this one and wished it had been longer!

The final story in the collection, I am the Mask Maker, also deserves a mention. When I first saw the title it made me think of the masks many of us have been wearing throughout the pandemic, but this is a story set in Renaissance Venice where our young narrator dreams of learning to make the beautiful decorative masks for which the city is famous. However, halfway through the story it becomes obvious that it’s much more timely than it appeared to be at first.

I’m not always a fan of short stories as I prefer fiction in its longer form, but I found these eleven stories entertaining, original and thought-provoking – and the perfect length for dipping into as a break from my other current reads. It’s also nice to be able to support a small independent publisher like Victorina Press. The book ends with a short piece by the artist David Hopkins describing his artwork which appears on the cover of the book. The painting is called Javi and fits the ‘mask’ theme of the book. I found it very interesting to read about the background to the painting and how he came to create it!

Thanks to Rhiannon Lewis and Victorina Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

My Beautiful Imperial by Rhiannon Lewis

When the Walter Scott Prize Academy published their list of twenty recommended historical fiction novels earlier this year, My Beautiful Imperial was one of the titles that sounded particularly appealing to me, so I was delighted to be offered a copy for review. I love books set in times and places I know nothing about and which are educational as well as entertaining – and this is one of those books.

It begins in 19th century Wales, where young Davy Davies is dreaming of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a sailor. Beginning navigation classes with the remarkable Sarah Jane Rees brings him closer to achieving his ambition, but it is not until tragedy strikes the Davies family that Davy must leave his home in Cardigan behind and embark on his career at sea. The years go by and Davy eventually becomes captain of the Imperial – and as luck would have it he is sailing up and down the coast of South America just as civil war breaks out in Chile.

President Balmaceda retains control of the Chilean Army but his Navy rebel and side against him and Davy finds that the Imperial is commandeered by the President’s forces, who are desperate for ships. Davy agrees to continue in his role as captain, but soon instead of carrying passengers, cargo and mail, the Imperial is transporting troops, supplies and ammunition. These are dangerous times, but Davy is sustained by his love for Estella, whom he meets while the ship is in harbour in Valparaiso. The only problem is, Estella is already married…

I really enjoyed reading My Beautiful Imperial. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Chile before and I certainly knew nothing about the Chilean Civil War of 1891. Although the main focus of the novel is on Davy’s own involvement in the war, there are also scenes written from the perspectives of several other characters, ranging from President Balmaceda himself to a reporter sent to Chile to cover the story for his newspaper, and in this way we are able to learn about the political situation in Chile, the causes of the conflict and some of the key events that take place before, during and after the war.

I sometimes struggle with books in which large sections of the story are set at sea, but that was not a problem here. The nautical terminology is kept to a level that I could understand and the descriptions of sea chases and manoeuvres are easy enough to follow. There are plenty of land-based sections too, giving us some glimpses of life in Valparaiso and other parts of Chile, as well as the opening chapters depicting Davy’s childhood in Wales. Davy’s path crosses with Estella’s several times throughout the novel, but their romance is only one small element of the story and I thought it was all the more moving because their meetings were few and far between.

I was interested to learn that Rhiannon Lewis had based this novel on the life of her great-great-uncle – he really was a Welsh sailor who became caught up in the Chilean Civil War. You can find pictures and more information on the author’s website. With such a strong personal connection, it must have been a fascinating book to research. It is certainly a fascinating one to read!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of My Beautiful Imperial for review.

This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.