Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true - provided you know how to wish properly first. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A teenager's growing pains are sometimes even bigger than him. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker's lamps, standing stones and baying hounds, and relationships wax and wane in the glow of a moonlit sea. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction. 
Goodreads description

Amazon Recommends usually fails to throw up much of interest or if it does the book is often one I already have (it even recommended to me one that I wrote), but once in a while Amazon recommends a gem. This debut collection of short stories by Lucy Wood is one such gem.

It has been suggested that Western writers aren't in touch with their magical past, but this book gives that notion the lie. Diving Belles reminds me of the works of Alan Garner, a British writer who had a tremendous influence on me as a child. Just as Cheshire runs through Garner's books, so Cornwall does in this one. Lucy Wood is remarkable at creating a sense of place:  Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window. Like Garner, Wood takes the folklore and myth of her home county and weaves into her stories. You might also compare her with Susan Clarke, but Wood's roots are strongly local and combine the mundane and the magical. For example: one of my favourite stories is Countless Stones in which a woman is struggling to get through a list of tasks (turn off the electric, close the windows) and is waylaid by her needy ex-boyfriend - only she isn't going away on holiday - she is turning into a menhir.

Many of the stories are about grief and loss, and, as is so often the case in magic realism, about the spaces between people. Most have a female central character, beautifully drawn, as shown in this description of a mother and adult daughter reunion: June helped her up and dusted off the back of her T-shirt. She had strong, capable hands. Tessa had always assumed her own hands would change somehow when she reached thirty, becoming strong hands for brushing off backs and changing tyres, but they hadn't so far.  

Another daughter/mother reunion also appears in one of my favourite stories, Of Mothers and Little People, in which a daughter realises that she has seen her mother in completely the wrong light, that her mother is not lonely but instead has an fairy lover normally invisible to the human eye. The story ends: When you look back his thumb is touching the smooth dip of her throat. Look again and they have gone – there are only the leaves rustling and the branches swaying in the wind. You can hear your mother’s footsteps somewhere close by but you cannot see her. You hear her laugh, or maybe it was just a bird trilling, you are not entirely sure.

If you are uncomfortable with such an ambiguous ending, then these stories are not for you. There is a sense of incompleteness about many of the stories, but why is it necessary for short stories to be neatly tied up? I love ambiguity: maybe that's why I love magic realism, and have no such problem.

 The final short story is about a traditional Cornish storyteller. As it starts the droll teller is thinking he had let the stories slip away. They weren’t buried anywhere. He thought they might have been buried somewhere. He realised now why the world had become flat and empty. Things were ending. But by the end of the story He could hear the story creeping out of the mine towards him... and now here he was beginning again; somehow, despite everything, he was beginning again. I felt the same about the folklore in these stories and for that reason was very excited by this book by an interesting debut author.
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1 comment:

Evie Woolmore said...

I absolutely love this book and will be reviewing it myself soon. The stories are beautifully crafted and wonderfully imaginative, though you make a good point about the ambiguous endings. In a sense they are like faded photographs, a snapshot of invisible lives.