This prize is awarded by Swansea University for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, named for the Swansea-born author, who died aged 39 in 1953. Today is my turn on the longlist blogtour, so without further ado, let me introduce you to:
Folk by Zoe Gilbert
Set on a remote island called Neverness, Folk tells the stories of er, well… the folk that live there, told over the course of a generation. As such, the book is a short story cycle, rather than a straight novel, with each chapter focusing on different main characters, who may then crop up in supporting roles in other stories.
Neverness is a place seemingly full of natural earth magic and folklore. The inhabitants live alongside nature, building it into the very substance of their lives. But as we know, nature can be elemental and unpredictable as well as beautiful, not forgetting the Darwinian survival of the fittest underlying everything. That’s not to say that the folk of Neverness have necessarily hard lives, it’s a rural largely self-sufficient community, so everyone has to play their part, but there is room for play too.
The book begins with a tale called Prick Song which refers to the effect of the thorns of the gorse bush. Every year the whole village gathers, while the girls and boys take part in a ritual celebrating spring. At first I was reminded of the early pages of Hardy’s Tess when she first meets Angel Clare as she dances around the maypole. Tennyson wrote, ‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ but lightly doesn’t really hack it here: the emotions of Neverness folk have a more powerful chemistry. The boys run the gorse maze to retrieve the girls’ arrows which they have shot into it. Once retrieved, they burn the gorse.
With these bows they have speared real arrows deep into the gorse, lodging amongst the thickest parts. The tattooed ribbons tied to them flutter against the gorse’s black needles. Some girls have weighted their arrows with nails to make them go further and deeper. All of them have stitched their names on to the strips of cloth. A few have added a dot, the thread broidered over and over to make a nub, which tells the boy who finds it that it is not only a mouth-kiss he will get when he returns.
All the girls want their kiss to be the reddest: a kiss from a boy who has dived so deep for her arrow that his lips have been pricked into a bloody pincushion.
Young Crab is determined to go deep on his first run. The boys have been chanting the old songs to the Gorse Mother working themselves up: Gorse Mother, Prick Mother, Drink me deep. Drink me up. Crab believes in her so badly, he doesn’t hear his father’s shouts or see the flames.
This tragic first tale is indicative of the power of folkloric beliefs with its sting in the tail. Thankfully, not all are so sad, but they are all strange, each in their own way, bound up in the island’s mythology. One of the more light-hearted stories, The Neverness Ox-Men, has the boys dressing up in a stinking ox hide to pronounce fortunes for those who venture near the cave under the waterfall, another annual ritual that takes on a new level when a girl gets in on the act.
The Water Bull Bride is another powerful tale. A stranger asks for shelter and Plum feels compelled to stroke his hair which is full of tiny shells. To late she realises he’s a water bull, a sort of soul-sensing bull-merman on the hunt for a maiden. Too late, she runs to the river – she must cross water to be safe from him, but instead she succumbs and will never be the satisfied by a mere mortal ever again. In fact many of these stories including A Winter Guest with the sexy Redwing who turns up to find a bed for the season, are bound up in lust one way or another, so maybe you can read the title of the first one Prick Song another way after all!
My favourites were the most mythic ones, where villagers commune with nature, such as Tether, in which Madden drinks mushroom tea which lets her ‘fly’ with the kites, tethered so she will come back to earth. Some of you may recall Carlos Castenada, whose 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan preached the shamanistic power of the psychedelic experience through peyote in Mexico. His eagles and condors become kites in Gilbert’s Celtic-style vision, but even the bad trips here seem an extension of the natural world rather than drug-induced.
One of my favourite characters was Verlyn Webbe in Verlyn’s Blessings, who was born with a wing instead of an arm on one side. Again, I was reminded of other books I’ve read where men grow wings – notably Peake’s Mr Pye and David Almond’s Skellig (which I read pre-blog). He’s no angel though, just a normal man.
Verlyn Webbe has a wing in place of an arm. It is too large, the grey speckled feathers reaching down to his ankle. The weight of it has pulled his shoulders out of kilter. He wears a coat to hide the crookedness of his body that is otherwise strong, the wing filling out one sleeve like a burst bolster with feathers poking from the cuff.
Every morning, when he goes to the lean-to behind his house to work, Veryln counts his blessings. The first is his wife, Werrity. ‘I am lucky to have her,’ he reminds himself…
He loves Werrity, who was one of the girls in the first story, now wife and mother; she loves him too, but doesn’t like to touch his wing. Along comes temptress Linnet Lundgren with her green apples, trying to get him to unfurl it, let her touch it…
All of these stories are suffused with beautiful writing about nature, the seasons, flowers, birds, bees and all God’s creatures. There’s a fecundity in the air as we’ve already seen, which mingled with the handed-down rituals from myth and folklore that govern the lives of Neverness folk, infects you as you read. It’s heady stuff. The illustrations which head each chapter, drawn by Gilbert’s aunt, add to the natural magic of the text.
In this community of artisans, fishermen and farmers, everyone has their role, mostly traditionally divided between men and women. I would have liked the author to mix it up a little more; only May the young fiddler, whom the fiddle-master Galushen sends off into the woods on her sixteenth birthday to find her spirit bucks the trend. This is a small quibble, but on occasions I did find I was mixing the women characters up, especially as we encounter some early on as girls and later as grown women.
One last thought. In her acknowledgments, Gilbert thanks the entire Isle of Man for its ‘gorse-scented inspiration and fantastic folk tales.’ If you go to the map of the village at the beginning of the book, an inset shows the entire island – which is the essential shape of the Isle of Man, with the village by the bay at the Southern end.
I’d love to return there for another holiday some time soon – my first was dominated by classic cars and motorbikes, but it did indeed seem an eldritch isle away from the thrum of engines.
Although in no way derivative, I loved the way that this story cycle reminded me of so many other books I’ve read and enjoyed, while working its particular magic on me. I’ll be very interested to read what Zoe Gilbert does next. (9/10)
Source: Review copy via Midas PR – thank you.
Zoe Gilbert, Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018), paperback, 256 pages.
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