I haven’t been thinking about my ‘best of’ 2018 but I wouldn’t be surprised if Zoe Gilbert’s Folk ends up on the list. It really isn’t quite like anything I’ve read before and I completely loved it. Although described as a novel, it’s not at all a conventional narrative. It’s actually a series of interconnected short stories about a community unlike any other – the fictional island village of ‘Neverness’.
Gilbert’s background is in short stories. Although Folk is her first published novel, her stories have appeared in many different journals and anthologies. She’s also a former Costa Short Story Award winner and runs The Short Story Club at the Word Factory.
Given all that, Folk is an excellent showcase of Gilbert’s short story writing ability. While each story has more than enough impact to stand alone, they are woven together in a masterful way. The stories move us from one house to the next, into the lives of one person, then another, but they also subtly shift us through time so that we see how people’s lives change as they age, we see them marry, we meet their children. Some of them end in tragedy and some hold on to hope.
In the opening story, ‘Prick Song’, the village boys force themselves deep into the gorse maze to retrieve marked arrows belonging to the village girls; the bearer of the arrow is entitled to a kiss and the girls wait for their suitors, with the bloodiest kiss carrying the highest honour. In ‘Long Have I Lain Beside the Water’, an aspiring young fiddle player ventures into the wilderness in search of her musical spirit and discovers the fate of her long-dead aunt and the true nature of her mother. In ‘Water Bull Bride’, the water bull rises with the tide on ‘wild nights’, assumes the form of a man and hunts for a maiden to slake his lust.
‘Folk’ seems like a very deliberate and multi-faceted choice of title. At its simplest, it’s a book about people – there’s nowt so queer as… But the stories are also about the folk of ‘folklore’, the stories that tell of the traditions and cultures of a community, the rituals that bind them together. In keeping with this, there are hints of magic and a sense in which the people are inextricably rooted in the natural world. In many instances, people and animals quite literally merge together either permanently or via magical shapeshifting. And in the way of all things rooted in nature, there is both strength and fragility. There is blood, fear, sexual threat, violence and death, but also endurance and renewal.
Gilbert’s way of writing the natural world is bleak at times but wonderful. It brought back to me my initial reaction to Lucy Wood – another writer I love who writes stories about people who cannot be separated from their surroundings. There’s a familiar harsh cruelty to both place and people that one often finds in nature amid the distracting beauty. The people seem perched perilously on the edge of their rituals, products of a time when stories had the power to hurt, heal or teach. There’s a strong sense of natural rhythm throughout both technically, in the language that Gilbert uses, and thematically in the emphasis on the turning of the seasons, the pulse of the earth and the beating of living hearts. There are also powerful themes of circularity – the book opens and closes with the same language to describe the same event, but separated by a number of years. Traditions persist. Life repeats itself and each generation takes on the mantle of the one before.
The magic in the stories adds another layer. Gilbert has done something so clever here, making it impossible to pin anything down. Some magical elements are woven so tightly into the fabric of the characters’ lives that we accept them in the way the characters themselves do. Other elements feel dream-like or occur as stories within stories, so that both we and the characters question what is real and what is fantasy. There’s Verlyn Webbe’s single, glorious wing, Sil’s cobweb shawl, drawn from the sea, or the eerie night flying made possible by Guller’s strange potions.
The last story is an incredible piece of writing, weaving many of the characters’ lives together and making painful sense of some of the earlier events, in a tale that asks questions about life, death, and the space between dreams and reality. It left me with goosebumps.
In her acknowledgements, Gilbert thanks ‘the entire Isle of Man, a place of gorse-scented inspiration and fantastic folk tales’. But Neverness is way more than just one place. Gilbert has created a world which is close enough to ours to feel familiar, particularly for those already a little in love with the old tales, which are so beautifully reimagined here. But she also takes us a step beyond, into a place where what is old becomes new and what is familiar becomes strange. Her writing is poetic, immersive, tactile and raw.