Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve

Abse, Dannie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: May-11-1999
  • Last revised: Nov-30-2006


This autobiographical novel tells the story of Michael, a young Jewish boy growing up in South Wales in the 1930's. Michael and Keith, his best friend, make their way along the difficult interface between the worlds of childhood and adulthood during the years in which Europe is preparing for war. The structure of the book is a series of tales told years later: "Cariad, clean heart, listen to me, this is my beginning. Let me start again." (The identity of "Cariad, clean heart" is left to the reader to imagine.)

The tales are humorous (e.g. the boys' first aborted attempt to purchase condoms) and touching (e.g. the death of Keith's mother). The novel ends with childhood's end: Keith is killed in a German air raid. Michael, now a medical student, stands by helplessly as the body of his friend is carried away.


Much of the material for this first novel was drawn directly from Dannie Abse's own childhood. For example, Michael's family constellation is much the same as Dannie's, even to the names and predilections of his two older brothers, Wilfred and Leo. Like Dannie, Michael is a curious and irreverent boy who goes on to study medicine. However, Keith and the role of his death in the protagonist's "coming of age" are entirely imagined. In many ways A Poet in the Family, the author's autobiography, is a more lively and interesting book (see this database).


Vallentine, Mitchell

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