Bewitching novel explores folklore and superstition

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

‘Turn away from the heather slope, to the seaward side of the hill. Sniff the air, catch the smoke. The men and women are already lighting torches, passing them along the line. All the villagers of Neverness are here: fishers and farmers, shepherds and huntsmen, fowlmonger, fiddler, brewer and beekeeper, seamstress, midwife, miller and bard.’

The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments. Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms. The tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation.

I was surprised to find that this book is more a collection of short stories than a straightforward narrative – a fact that makes sense when you realise Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 and which seems to have put some reviewers off. However, once you get to grips with the structure, readers will soon find themselves under Folk’s dark spell.

Gilbert is a fantastic writer, there’s no doubt about that. She excels at describing the harsh, windswept village of Neverness in language that is atmospheric and wonderfully evocative, with a bewitching rhythm that makes each sentence into an incantation. The reader is plunged headfirst into a terrifying world where, it seems, anything is possible. The island of Neverness is a frightening place ruled by superstition and plagued by vestiges of dark magic.

I do wish that Gilbert had done more to elevate her characters above the stock types found in folk and fairy tales. I found them likeable but not altogether memorable; as we only spend one chapter with each character we don’t have enough time to get to know them properly. As such, it lacks the emotional connection that would make this a truly great book.

I did enjoy the interweaving of time and character, the way we are never quite sure how much time has passed but are given subtle hints to guide us. Our footing is never quite secure in Neverness; we can never be sure where we stand.

Each of these tales is bewitching and full of magic, but each also has dark and bloody edges. The images are stark and vivid, conjuring an atmosphere as beautiful as it is unsettling. Children become convinced their parents aren’t who they say they are, a boy is burned alive, and hysteria drives people to terrible actions. There is bound to be at least one story here that sends a chill down your spine.

Folk is strange and memorable and dream-like in its intensity. If you are interested in folklore, myths and superstition, I’d strongly encourage you to pick it up. It is not a book you will easily forget.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Advertisements

Prize-winning author returns with fantastic feminist retelling of Greek myth

Circe by Madeline Miller

‘Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.’

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, Zeus banishes her to exile on a remote island. But Circe will not be alone.

Madeline Miller, the Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles, returns after six years with Circe, a tale inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. The Song of Achilles was a book I completely fell in love with, so Miller’s new novel was one of my most anticipated books of 2018. Thankfully, all those years of waiting paid off.

Miller has crafted an exquisitely written feminist fable featuring a woman who dares to take power into her own hands. Circe is a wonderful character and I loved spending time with her, watching her grow from a young nymph painfully aware of each and every one of her supposed shortcomings, to a woman taking control of her powers. Tired of always being at odds with everyone and everything around her, she decides instead to bend the world to her will using witchcraft.

Although this is very much Circe’s story (and, told in first person, we get to know her very well), we also meet many famous Greek characters along the way, including Prometheus, Athena, Icarus and the Minotaur.

No word is wasted in Miller’s evocative, precise prose. She conjures battles at sea, magical transformations and tense arguments between powerful gods with clarity and vivid descriptions. She captures both the awkward stirrings of first love and the wearying ache of immortality with equal skill.

Anyone interested in Greek mythology will find much to love here, but Miller isn’t only concerned with gods and goddesses; she is also keen to examine what happens to those who wield such immense power. She peels back the myth to expose the man – or woman – beneath. She transforms immortal beings with terrifying, fantastical powers into characters who feel like real people. Even with nymphs and monsters running amok throughout the story, the world Miller has created is utterly believable.

This book will surely become a classic; a feminist retelling that turns a tale of suppression into one of empowerment and one that truly deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.