This historical saga, subtitled “The Life and Death of a Righteous Woman” is set in rural Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a prequel to Moore’s first novel “A Time for Silence” and follows the lives of the Owen family, tenant farmers on a small piece of land “twenty-four acres, one rood, eight perches.”
The righteous woman is Leah Owen, daughter of Thomas Owen, “Tada”, a towering and uncompromising figure of biblical proportions whose relationship with the land he farms and his rigid attitudes to life and faith, dominate his family.
Leah herself is strong, patient and loving although she hides softer feelings beneath a rigid exterior born of duty and suffering. Her siblings gradually take different means of escape, leaving her with the responsibility of the farm and their father. Her younger brother Frank’s life is tainted from childhood because he is not their beloved older brother Tom, the lost heir to Cwmderwen. Gradually Frank himself becomes a malignant figure, struggling with an unwished-for destiny and the evil influence of his friend Eli John.
The other characters, Leah’s sisters, the rising man David George and the irritating but harmless Betty, contribute to the plot, providing a contrasting perspective and occasionally intervening in major events.
Each chapter is from a different time period as we follow Leah and the Owen family from the tragic prologue, back to their childhood and then forward, a few years at a time, from the 1880s until the 1920s. From the very start, we know that Leah’s life will not be a happy one. How the tragedy unfolds is gradually revealed as one after another the people she loves, those who might offer her support and save her, vanish from her sphere through fate, bad choices or the awful pressures of life on the Owen land.
If the prologue promises personal tragedy, it is Tom’s death aged 16 which seals it, shaping much of the ensuing succession of disappointments and disasters. My one criticism is that although we are told repeatedly that Tom’s early death changes his father’s character, the brief glimpses of Eden before the fall are insufficient to highlight the subsequent transformation.
The plot could not exist without the landscape, the harsh depiction of the Pembrokeshire countryside and claustrophobic village life reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But, undoubtedly, we are in Wales not England, surrounded by the grim “chapel” culture without the male voice choirs. A light sprinkling of Welsh phrases reinforces the place and the time.
Sometimes the next chapter in the unfolding cataclysm is clearly foreshadowed so that I was mouthing “No, don’t do it”. Alas, my warnings did not prevent a single murder, accident or drowning.
This is a well-constructed novel, beautiful but painful and raw, filled with the inevitability of an inescapable fate. If you enjoy books like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Anna Karenina, you will love The Covenant.
(This review by AJ Lyndon first appeared on Rosie Amber’s blog 6 December 2020.)