The Long Field by Pamela Petro – review

A memoir, Wales, and the presence of absence. 

From conception to finish, it’s taken Pamela Petro eight years to write The Long FieldBut it’s a memoir, so it demanded a lifetime of research. Petro writes about events from her own history, her own close relationships, and sews wider observations – about Wales and the world – into them. Her brush strokes are precise and piercing one second, broad and forgiving the next. Here’s the sky, blue-grey, applied with a roller. Then we’re going right in, stepping close to the canvas, to add detail to someone’s features, the shape of a cloud. 

The knowing when to focus, when to take a step back, comes from years of reading, writing and teaching writing, in the USA and Wales. 

‘As I’ve taught, I’ve become a better writer,’ Petro revealed in an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook last month. ‘Teaching has enabled me to write this book. Could I have written this book before I started teaching? I don’t know.’

The book is largely preoccupied with Petro’s experiences as a student in Wales, and the effect it had on her life later. Though she’d lived in a number of places by the time she was twenty-three – New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington DC, Cape Cod, France – her time in Wales was different. 

‘…I found myself nodding, as if I were in agreement with the landscape. Its lucidity cut like a scalpel through mental images of all the other places I’d lived… It sliced through their forests and highways and towns and cities and clutter, peeling them away, down to the mental bedrock beneath – a primary place of understanding where memory and concept conjoin. And that place looked like Wales.’ 

Pretty much every sentence is like this: layered, vivid, earnest. Though her descriptions of landscapes are excellent and the explanations of its impact on her internal landscape are extremely moving, it’s her portraits of people that stand out. It was during her time studying in Wales that Petro began to understand her own sexuality – she writes about early, confusing relationships with honesty and the humility of hindsight. Her family are a constant thread in the book – their bonds are sometimes supportive, sometimes strained. The terrain is undulating, difficult to traverse. Over the course of the book, there are plenty of emotional entry points: plenty of places to stop, think, take in the view. There are also moments designed to trip you up. You thought you were reading this kind of book, but now it’s this kind of book. Petro shifts gears confidently between settings, scenes, mental states, draws your attention to the right thing at the right time.

It’s the kind of writing that comes from years of practise. It comes from reading, teaching, living. It comes from knowing the world is strange sometimes and unexplainable. That a place can be new to you, completely alien, and still feel like home. 

The Long Field will be published by Little Toller in September 2021. You can pre-order copies here. To find out more about Pamela Petro and her writing, you can visit her website, or follow her on Twitter

Nothing in the Rulebook were also lucky enough to interview Pam last month. Read the interview here

About the Reviewer

For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed writers for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle

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