At the top of the hill they looked out at it. Their town. Its slow streets. Its shifting houses. The fidgeting gardens where cats trailed across fences, catching their small springtime prey, the poking chimneys, a couple of them smoking, even on a warm day. The town mumbled to itself beneath the deep clouds. Conran, 2016: 243
Pigeon is a story about the role of our everyday geographies – our home, our street, our town and its people - in forming who we are. It asks how we story ourselves in relation to the inherited cultures and histories of a place (or the combined ‘mumblings’ as Conran refers to them), and how these may often be comforting but sometimes intensely claustrophobic.
Pigeon is a novel about growing up and learning to find a place for ourselves amongst these familiar cultures and geographies, and how it is often only when we leave, then return, that we can do so on our own terms. In sum, the novel asks how do we build a place for ourselves in the world, on our own terms, in our own words?
Pigeon is set in an unnamed mining town in North Wales. The town lies on the periphery of the Snowdonia National Park, and its cultural landscape is dominated by the juxtaposition of the rugged beauty of this topographical surface, and the quarries that mine the geological riches of slate beneath.
The author Alys Conran grew up in this region, and has returned to it following a period abroad. This story of growing up, exile, and return finds a parallel in the themes dominating the novel, and in particular, the title character of Pigeon. Although the novel's location is not named in the text, Alys Conran acknowledges its location is based on Bethesda.
The novel focuses primarily on two characters, Pigeon and Iola. These are two young people who are marginalised and dispossessed from the constraining familial and cultural structures of their town. By giving voice to these characters from the margins, Conran echoes other novels in the Literary Atlas (see Amy Dillwyn and Niall Griffiths), introducing readers to the perspectives of individuals who may be easily ignored, overlooked, or silenced by dominant sectors of society. The novel charts Pigeon’s journey in finding his own voice, and place.
Interview with Alys Conran – Stories of Young People
I was aware that I felt that the stories of young people who struggle in places like this were not maybe finding their way in North Wales, were not finding their way into books and I wanted to write about a boy like Pigeon, a boy from Pigeon’s background and a boy with Pigeon’s struggles. I think I also wanted to write against this, this stereotype that I’d found restrictive, of Wales where those kind of characters perhaps had no creativity or agency or imagination within their situation. So Pigeon does find himself at several points unable to change his situation but he’s always a character that is absolutely full of ideas and really able to imagine his way out. I definitely wanted that.
Conran describes Pigeon and his apparent alienation from the town in which he lives, as follows:
So here, here's Pigeon again. Here, grey. Just a sketch the boy. His face is sallow. There's a snarl at his lips, and his shoulders are delicate as eggshells. Pigeon, here on the hill, wanders the pebble-dash, pebbled ash, scuffing his feet up the hill, and then up between the houses Conran, 2016: 14.
Iola is introduced to the reader in the following way:
She appeared. It was lola, come out of the wood like a genie, small with a pot belly over her skirt, knees as always covered in bruises and grazes, shoes undone, hair so light it's almost white. Conran, 2016: 6
Both these characters are defined to some extent by their relation to the world around them. They are both vulnerable and fragile, as if just emerged from a world of mythical nature into a hostile environment that will graze and bruise them into submission, if they don’t get their scuffing blows in first. As we will see in the Pigeon plotline, both characters appear out of place in the urban environment of the fictionalized Bethesda, and more at home in the woods and hills surrounding the town. They find escape both in these areas, and in their relationship. Both these sets of connections help form a sense of who they are, and what they may become.
He [Pigeon] needed her. Without lola, all his thoughts just made a black inky mess. Conran, 2016: 34
In this plotline, we explore the town of Bethesda, its hillsides, pools, and waterfalls, and its neighbouring quarry. These were the locations that Alys Conran fictionalized in her novel Pigeon.