14 April 2018

Review - The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood

The Sing of the Shore
Lucy Wood
4th Estate, 5 April 2018
HB, 228pp

I bought my copy of this book from Wallingford Bookshop (@wallingfordbook).

I'm a great admirer of Lucy Wood's stories. First, in Diving Belles she told short stories about women, men and the shore, with a fantastical bent. Her novel, Weathering moved inland, upriver, from the sea-salt and sand to snow and mud but still catching a hint of the wired behind everyday life.

The Sing of the Shore goes back to the coast (mainly), the Cornish coast, with tales (mainly) less magical, but perhaps sadder, chronicling lives lived awkwardly in the gaps left by absent owners and tourists, in caravans and short term lets and tents. The characters here engage with winter cold, with gales or mildew or missing parents, meeting all these different challenges with a degree of acceptance and endurance.

In Home Scar a group of children kick their heels in the off season, mooching on the shore and gently breaking in to holiday cottages. Ivor's dad seems pretty deadbeat, always trying things but giving up halfway. Ivor wants them to move away, to a more secure life. In the meantime, he, Crystal and Gull Gilbert try to enact a stolen life.

In The Dishes, Jay and Lorna and their baby have "use of" a small terraced house while Lorna works nearby at the top-secret Dishes (some kind of satellite or comms establishment, which features in several of these stories, often in connection with misplaced/ displaced families and absent parents). Alone most of his time with the not-quite-talking baby, Jay becomes obsessed with voices from the empty house next door. Something has happened which he dreads coming to light and gradually - without any weirdness, any supernaturalism - his world distorts.

Dreckly is subdivided into sections according to the fall and rise of the tide, following three friends as they comb a beach for leavings from the summer tourists. Just about making ends meet - one of them lives in her van - they are the last of their group: the others have moved on, gone away. Imbued, like many off these stories, with a sense of the seaside after hours, out of time, out of season, this is a beautiful story that really lets its protagonists breathe.

One Foot in Front of the Other takes a step back inland. It is almost folk horror story in miniature. A woman needs to "get back" (From where? To where?) but her attempts are thwarted by hedges, brambles and an ominous herd of brown cattle. With its repetition of slightly varying threats - the noise of gunfire, of an angle grinder, repeated phrases and vague geography, and constant barriers (hedges, fences) this almost felt like a story of imprisonment.

Way the Hell Out takes an old trope - the idea of the outsider family terrorised by some horror in their new rural home - and shows us another perspective, all through a conversation between Fran and Morrie, in a cafe. They almost seem to be weaving the story as they go, prompting each other. Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict is as much an undermining of the idea of a retirement idyll but told the other way round.  A husband and wife have retired to a small house above a sea cove. They have cut all their ties, left no loose ends, and are ready to spend their time not having to think. Except they haven't. Rubbish begins to wash up on the beach and Mary becomes obsessed with clearing it away. Meanwhile, we're told there is something particular they don't want to think about. A letter arrives from Vincent's ex employer and is put away, unopened. There is some problem with "our daughter" (not named). With not a word out of place, this is a perfect, intriguing gem of a story.

Salthouse opens "Winters are when people disappear". Following teenagers Gina and Evie one evening, it evokes both the in-between of an off-season resort and the in-between of young lives on the brink of changing, showing something also changing between the girls but a lot staying the same.

The Life of a Wave is anonymous, written about "you", "your father", "your mother", "your sister". Second person is tricky, personal, involving in a way neither first nor third comes near. In this story it is very effective at drawing the reader in to this story of a father and a son, set along the lifecycle of a wave from its beginning as a wind blown crease far out at sea to the final crash on the shore. That's fitting because the key thing about the father here is that he's a surfer - to the extent of forgetting his family, forgetting anything that may happen. As the story gathers pace this drives a wedge between the two and we wonder, can this end well?

Standing Water is the story of two neighbours who have long fallen out over a flooded ditch. Alive with long-fostered hatreds, it details the way the lives of the two fold intricately round each other.

A Year of Buryings is just that - vignettes of the lives lost over one year, the restless ghosts spawned form those deaths, the interrelatedness of the new occupants in the cemetery. Every story here is a perfect miniature - Wood can get as much feeling and narrative out of a single paragraph as some writers manage in a full length novel. As with Way the Hell Out there is a sense here of a participant shaping events and sometimes perplexed ("What the hell am I meant to do with that?")

Cables is another meeting with Fran and Morrie, now telling the story of a man obsessed by the undersea cables coming ashore on the beach. Convinced he can hear a hum from them, he is digging holes on the beach. As they fill up with water the two speculate on what's really going on (and it's clear they also know a fair bit about some of the other stories in the book).

The Sing of the Shore is a bout a brother and sister who run a fading campsite. Present and past blur together as they wander the fields and lanes both as children and adults (maybe 30 years later?) There's no sign or world now of the parents who appear in the "past" but nor of the boy who came to stay when Kensa was twelve, and then vanished. As with The Dishes there are perhaps hints to be decoded in the story but they almost seem to be there to tease the reader: all that is sure is the decaying site on a windy headland with the caves beneath and over it all that sound, the sing of the shore.

By-the-Wind Sailors is named for creatures that float where the wind blows them - here a family of three, homeless, shifting between caravans, flats over shops, garden huts and other semi-permanent accommodation. It goes on year after year, with the main feature of interest being the weather - you can learn to endure anything , except when you can't. A shifty, sad final story in this excellent volume, which has atmosphere in spades (make that children's, beach spades). It's a lovely book - not only in the writing but in the cover design too which is, sadly, uncredited.

As these stories grow, ramify, refer to one another and diverge again, Wood creates something more than simply a collection, she creates a world. An odd world with a lot of shade and may in between places, but also an intriguing, glinting world. Strongly recommended.

For more about this book, see the publisher's website.

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