Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.
Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.
In these stories, the place gets in everything:
There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.
This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.
‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.
There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.
Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.
The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).
My book group chose Lucy Wood’s collection Diving Belles for this month, which gave me a welcome excuse to re-read it. I enjoyed it even more the second time around, and – having read Weathering quite recently – gained a greater appreciation of Wood’s approach in general.
By coincidence, Max Cairnduff reviewed Diving Belles the other week; like me, he loved it (I wasn’t surprised, as we tend to have quite similar taste in books). One of his comments that I found particularly interesting was that, even though the metaphors in Wood’s stories aren’t the subtlest, he was more forgiving of this than he’d usually be.
Thinking about this in the broader context of Wood’s work, I am struck that her fiction inhabits a space where metaphor becomes interchangeable with action and landscape. She can get away with using broad metaphors, because they are the foundation of her work, rather than its end-point. To borrow an expression from Ethan Robinson, magic is a ‘living presence’ in Wood’s stories; this is a key quality that draws me to her work, and why it continues to haunt me.
Book details (Foyles affiliate links)
Diving Belles (2012) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury paperback
Weathering (2015) by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury hardback
Three years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:
Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)
I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.
It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.
Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.
We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.
The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.
I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like. But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:
[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.
‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.
Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’
‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’
‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘
‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)
Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.
Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:
Last night, the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award was won by Sarah Hall for her story ‘Mrs Fox.; Lucy Wood was runner-up, for ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. It’s a good result, I think: Hall’s story, about a man whose relationship starts to break down when his wife undergoes a profound transformation (which may or may not be literal, for all the difference it makes), has a brilliant sense of wildness and mystery. I’ve already written about Wood’s tale in my review of Diving Belles; it was one of my favourite stories in her collection.
Actually, Hall’s and Wood’s were two of my three favourite stories on the Award shortlist (the third was ‘Barmouth’, Lisa Blower’s depiction of a woman’s life depicted through her caravan holidays, which creates a wonderful sense of time and place, and captures the melancholy of change). Interestingly, both the first- and second-place stories make use of the fantastic to explore personal concerns and notions of change. You can still pick up a copy of the Award anthology, which I’d suggest is well worth doing.
Would you like to hear about the best book I’ve read so far this year? Here it is: the debut collection from Lucy Wood, a set of contemporary stories inspired by Cornish folklore. Wood is clearly going to be a name to watch out for in the future; to find out why, I’d invite you to read my review of Diving Belles, which is up on Strange Horizons today.