“I’VE got my great-grandfather’s death certificate on my wall, that sort of kick-started the whole story,” says Catrin Kean.

The story of her great-grandmother Ellen meeting Samuel, a ship’s cook from Barbados, and joining him at sea and settling for a period in San Francisco before returning to Cardiff, is told in Kean’s debut novel Salt.

It was last week named Wales Book of Year, taking the main prize at the English language awards which run in parallel with the Welsh language awards, organised by Literature Wales.

The novel starts with Ellen confined to her bed by a broken hip during the Cardiff Blitz of 1941 and she takes the reader back to 1878 and her marriage to Samuel.

For Catrin though, whose father Peter Clark is Ellen and Samuel’s grandson, it was the tragic circumstances of Samuel’s death at sea in 1899 which inspired her to bring their story to readers.

“The certificate says place of death, it’s in the middle of the ocean, it’s just a map reference off Cape Verde. Cause of death, it says ‘he got that drunk in the port of Barry by the time he got on the ship, The Sunningdale, he refused to eat or drink and became that weak until he died’.

“My father used to talk about, it was really a sad thing in the family, about how and why granddad died. I just thought, why did he do that? What was the reason for this and that was the start, the kicking off point really for my story.”

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Life at sea is described as brutal and dangerous, but it is a place where they can be free. When circumstances force Ellen home, the hardships of working-class life and racism poison their lives.

“It was very, very hard for a black man to get work on shore,” says Catrin of the reality of life for a black man in Victorian Cardiff. “I’ve traced him at one point going from ship to ship to ship, he was away, at one point, for at least three years.

“That was really hard and black people couldn’t get jobs on dry land, he would have been forced to leave his family for long periods of time so he could provide for them.”

Catrin, who lives in Cardiff, has relied on her dad for family history that couldn’t be found in records and archives, and a research trip to Barbados, and has weaved those into the story.

“Ellen told my father when she was going round Cape Horn in a storm she saw angels in the rigging. I thought I had to get that in. I told my family I have used artistic licence. I hope I’ve kept to the spirit of their story and there are some absolute facts in there.”

An elderly relative was also prompted to share her experience of racism growing up: “A character comes home from school and reveals the racist abuse she suffered. But what’s really sad is actually she didn’t tell a soul about that until she was well into her 80s, when I was writing the book.”

For Catrin, who is as proud of her Bajan heritage as she is of her Irish and Welsh roots, the book of the year title is recognition of the story’s importance and her city’s long-established multiculturalism.

“People say it must be really unusual, your great-grandparents’ marriage, but no I don’t think it was unusual. It’s just something that hasn’t been told, a story that hasn’t become part of our cultural storytelling which is one of the reasons I thought it’s really important that this story was out there.”

• Student Megan Angharad Hunter was named winner of the Welsh-language Wales Book of the Year Award for her debut novel, Tu Ol i’r Awyr. 

It follows the journey of teenage characters, Deian and Anest, and their amazing relationship through the angst of their lives. 

The author, from s from Dyffryn Nantlle, is currently studying Welsh and Philosophy at Cardiff University.  

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