I picked up this collection after reading a review of Lucy Wood’s new novel Weathering and, having looked into her work, was interested in her collection of short stories set along the Cornwall coast. It’s a collection which wonderfully weaves mythology, folklore, magic, and the sea into a set of stories which leave me eager to read more of her work.
The collection as a whole is a strong one; there’s the overwhelming sense that these are tales rather than stories, combining magical or fantastical elements with reality in a way which isn’t too heavy-handed or unnatural and often gives an unsettling edge to many of the stories which is something I enjoyed. There are stories in the collection that I feel are stronger, and ones I enjoyed more, but Lucy Wood is definitely a writer I will watch: she’s clearly skilled and her stories are interesting and intriguing.
The title story is an excellent one, and is a strong opening to the collection. From the first few paragraphs in, I got an inkling I’d enjoy the stories that follow it. Diving Belles follows Iris as she takes a trip down to the seabed in a diving bell, searching for her husband who she believes was taken, like so many other men, suddenly by the sea – although not in the way that we may imagine. Wood’s writing is atmospheric, almost cinematic, and effortlessly mixes the mystical with reality. Her observations are sharp and offer startling insights into Iris and her thought processes which bring her immediately to the forefront, creating her into a real character rather than simply a vessel for the story. The story is strong as a standalone, but works particularly well to showcase Wood’s writing and the style of the stories which will follow.
Of Mothers and Little People is another story I love. Written addressing the reader, it’s an affecting and poignant story. The narrator goes to visit her mother before a dinner with her father and his new partner. The daughter believes her mother to be lonely and sad but, after she applies her mother’s mysterious cream to her eyes, she begins to see that her mother isn’t as alone as she thought. What I loved so much about this story was that, while there were fantastical or magical elements, they served to highlight something really important: a daughter seeing her mother, properly, for the first time as a person. As the story is addressing the reader, it’s a powerful one, implicating you in the story.
Beachcombing is a touching story of the relationship between a grandmother and grandson. The grandmother lives in a cave on the beach; her grandson, Oscar, visits her most days and they go beachcombing together. Wood’s characterisation is particularly strong in this story: the pair’s relationship is wonderfully depicted and it can sometimes become clear to the reader in the space of a single sentence. Here are a couple of my favourite lines:
Oscar finds a pair of glasses on a beachcombing trip: “Can I try them on, Oscar?’ she [the grandmother] asked. Oscar pretended that he hadn’t heard. Grandma decided to bide her time. After a while she suggested a game of blackjack. She had taught Oscar how to play a year ago so she could win his pocket money off him.” (p. 114)
“She could tell [Oscar] was cold but he didn’t like to admit it. ‘I think I’ll get a jumper on,’ she said. He turned round and followed her into the cave, where she kept all her things. […] ‘Well if you are, I suppose I might as well,’ he said.” (p. 108)
All of the stories are quiet ones, focussing on one or two central characters. Wood’s characterisation is good throughout her stories, and it’s the relationship between people that she writes well and which, in one way or another, seems to appear in many of the stories. The Wishing Tree sees a woman and her mother go on a trip together, and the daughter realising that perhaps she’s not the one who needs looking after anymore; The Giant’s Boneyard tells the touching friendship of a boy and girl; Countless Stones centres on a woman who starts to turn into stone and begins to prepare things for her departure and is interrupted by her ex-boyfriend unable to start his car.
Diving Belles is a strong short story collection, and one that I’d like to return to. The stories are interesting, and work well mixing folklore and reality, and bringing those tales into the modern day. I particularly enjoy how the majority of the stories are set by the sea, or involve the sea in some way. It serves to link all of the stories together, yet each piece is distinct. I’ve found many of the stories have lingered in my mind for some time after finishing them.
Have you read Diving Belles or Weathering? What did you think?