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.