31 January 2012

Review - Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Diving Belles
Lucy Wood
Bloomsbury, 2012

I found this short story collection very impressive.

Lucy Wood conjures up a world where the most bizarre and the most everyday things rub shoulders easily. A care home caters for clients who aren't accepted anywhere else - chiefly retired witches and wizards. A company, the "Diving Belles' of the title story, helps women to retrieve their stolen-away menfolk from the sea using a diving bell (and net). You can even buy gift vouchers. A woman is distracted from urgent chores by her slightly annoying ex. The things she really needs to do (locking the windows, emptying the fridge, calling her boss to say she won't be at work for a bit) have to be completed soon, before she turns into a standing stone, a state of affairs which could last months or years. A boy visits his grandmother who has taken to living in a cave on the beach. The spirits on an empty house recall, with slight puzzlement, the ebb and flow of life over generations of its occupants. And so on. The stories are full of loneliness and regret. Couples meet and awkwardly fail to communicate. Things change and may be coming out right or they may not: the stories often take place on the cusp of changes or transformations, and often they don't quite give away what happened in the end. We just have to imagine it.

Wood has a real gift for making these extraordinary circumstances seem entirely natural - and thereby placing "normal" experiences and dilemmas (a teenager's uncertainty about "growing up", a sick parent, a grieving widow who feels guilty after her husband drowned) in a startling new light. This is summed up in the final story, where a storyteller wanders a small town, as if in farewell. Things seem to be coming to an end for him. As he recalls wrecks, smugglers and murder he seems only to be retelling the plotlines from the TV soaps he's recently taken to watching, yet at the same time he remembers events that he witnessed centuries before. Finally, though, he senses a story climbing towards him from deep in the abandoned mine workings. It could be a new beginning - or something very bad may be about to happen. That seems to me to capture the essence of the book, the weird blending of the fantastic, mythical and ancient with the everyday.

The book is also full of the sound of the sea, of sand, cliffs, things washed up on the beach - or lost to the waters. It's one of the most atmospheric books I've read in a long time, and deeply haunting.

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