Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

There are those rare books that come into your life and once finished you feel a little bereft because they were so good. Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short stories ‘Diving Belles’ is one such book, in fact I loved it so much I had to ration it out to the point I was only reading one or two stories a week. I simply didn’t want to it end. Now of course I want you all to have that experience. So even if you think you don’t like magical books, short story collections or maybe shy away from modern fiction, please, please read on or you might miss out on an absolute reading gem.

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, short stories, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Diving Belles’ is a collection of stories that it would be easy to describe as fairytales for adults, that very statement may of course put people off, and while it is a book that finds the myths and legends of the Cornish coast seeping into every page of it there is so much more to it than that. Of course writing about a whole collection is always difficult (made doubly so when you loved every single one in the book) as you could end up giving too much away on each story or end up writing something as long as the collection itself.

The main theme with the book is that each story has a magical and rather other worldly element to it. Be they tales of old grandma’s living in caves by the sea in ‘Beachcombing’ or tales of awkward first love and teenage hormones in ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ Lucy Wood manages to merge the modern with the magical, you feel like you know the world you are taken into and yet there is something so ‘other’ about it you are never quite sure. Actually the last tale in the collection, ‘Some Drolls Are Like That Some Drolls Are Like This’ sums up the whole collection as a man gives a tour round a Cornish village to tourists who want to hear of the old tales and yet as he tries to tell them he finds the modern world steps in or the magical elements simply cannot be explained and struggle to come off the tongue to this pair of outsiders.

There are two particularly deft things that Lucy Wood does with ‘Diving Belles’. Firstly she gives a nod to the fairytales of old, we have children visiting their grandma’s with gifts, people being lead into woods following a tempting trail in ‘Magpies’ and we have mermaids, talking creatures, the seas and snow to which fairytales lend themselves, or maybe work best alongside. The second thing is that she looks at human emotions and adds a magical element to try and explain them. In the aforementioned ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ teenagers growing pains are given a literal yet magical twist. In ‘The Wishing Tree’ we have elements of magic in a tale about the unspoken acknowledgement between a mother and daughter about something awful. ‘Light’s In Other Peoples Houses’ uses the arrival of ghost of a ship wrecker in a new home to have our narrator look at her past, long buried. A grown up daughter must come to turns with her mother and fathers separation and how they have moved on, even if one of them seems to have met someone from another world, and accept it for herself in ‘Of Mothers and Little People’.

In every story the writing is so beautiful that you are completely engulfed and lost in the world that Lucy Wood has created for you. They can be achingly sad one moment and laugh out loud funny the next, there is never a sense of melancholy and yet you are often incredibly moved. It therefore makes any favourites really difficult to spot, and indeed to find the perfect example of her writing. However I did have a few particular standouts.

‘Diving Belles’, the opening and title story, is the tale of a woman, called Iris, and the grief of her husbands disappearance. Everyone, including herself, knows that he has been taken by the mermaids but it is something unspoken in the village, it is the way it is, and yet in her desperation to see him after ‘seventeen thousand, six hundred and thirty two’ nights she sees the local woman Demelza who runs ‘Diving Belles’ a company just for the women in the town in the same predicament. What Iris discovers will have you misty eyed, but I shall say no more. ‘Countless Stones’ tells of Rita, a woman who from time to time knows she must become part of a stone circle, sometimes for weeks sometimes for months though not yet for years, and Wood really gets you into the head of someone who is resigned to this and how it affects her having a normal life. It is just stunning. I love witches and wizards, have since I was a child, and so that’s probably why ‘Blue Moon’ was a huge success with me. What would happen if witches and wizards ended up in an old people’s home? What awful things could they do if ‘the kitchen runs out of ketchup or they miss their favourite programme on the telly’ (here is a prime example of Wood’s wonderful tongue in cheek humour and her mix of the modern with the magical), you read on and find out and also discover a touching tale of old age.

The standout story for me had to be ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. Here we are given decades and decades of the dwellers of an unnamed house from the perspective of the house itself, or at least the essence of the house all in under twenty pages. Some people the house likes, some it doesn’t, but not only do I know that every time I pass an empty house from now on I will think of this tale and feel for the building, I am also left wondering if my house likes me? Seriously, it is that effective and is some of the most original, exciting and simply brilliant prose I have read in some time.

‘It’s always the same – feet, feet, feet and dirt on the carpet and now everything is being moved, now everything is being changed. There is noise and there is more noise and then there is the worst thing: walls have been taken away and a door. Now there is a gap where the door was and there is a bigger room instead of two rooms and one less room where the wall was before. We have been rearranged. We hide behind the curtain poles and under the loose tiles in the kitchen. Things have been changed and things have been taken away. We are not sure. We are not sure at all. We have been rearranged. It is not what we expected to happen. How can you take away a wall or a door and not expect the whole house to fall down? How hasn’t the whole house fallen down already? We cower, covering our heads, waiting for it to happen.

It hasn’t happened yet.’

I urge all of you to go out and read ‘Diving Belles’. I don’t think I have been this excited or captivated by a debut author, or indeed a well known one, in quite some time (actually Eowyn Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ had this effect). It’s the sort of book that really makes reading come alive and re-ignites or invigorates the joy of reading to anyone no matter how little or how much you read. I should really stop enthusing now shouldn’t I? It might seem a little obvious to say that this is easily my book of the year and will be a collection I return to again and again but it’s true. I know what I will be buying everyone for their birthdays this year or just randomly as a treat.


Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Lucy Wood, Review, Short Stories

24 responses to “Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

  1. Am only half way through but there does seem to be a running theme of separation too. I second what you’ve said from what I’ve read so far, it’s a beautiful collection.

    • It is stunning isnt it Ellie? It is interesting to see that you have had the same reaction of reading it oh so very sparingly as I felt I needed to. Its without doubt a book I will turn to again and again in the future. Look forward to your thoughts.

  2. I can only echo your sentiments, really. I was blown away by the emotional aspects and how they interweave with the myths of Cornwall. It’s an astoundingly good collection of short stories.

    We share the same favourite story and actually it is Lucy’s favourite, too. Feel free to edit this out Simon, but I have to drop a link to my interview with Lucy here – http://dogeardiscs.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/an-interview-with-lucy-wood/

    • Aha, you have popped a link to your interview in the comments for people to find perfect.

      I knew you had done one with her but wasn’t able to read it, or your review of the book until I had finished it myself. I do that with books I am reading or due to read anytime soon.

      Stunning book isnt it. I will pop and read your interview etc in the morning myself.

  3. Samir

    Oh my. Well who can refuse a reader’s plea to read a book on the ground of how good it is? Certainly not I. I’ve placed it on my wish list and I’m really curious now.

    • It is a simply stunning short story collection. It has a bit of everything for any reader and also has a certain nostalgia to it that gets to the very earliest parts of a reader in you, if that makes sense? I really hope lots of people give this book a whirl.

  4. Ohh damm you Simon, just when I try and get a handle on my TBR pile you go steaming in with a beautiful review and I simply have to add to it again. Seriously, its great to hear someone enthuse so wonderfully about something one has read, brings the joy of reading home to those who have not made it a lifetime habit. I’ve just ordered this collection, I look forward to enjoying it with as as much gusto as you have.

    • I would apologise Paul but frankly I want everyone I can think of to read this book. Hence why I will be buying copies for everyone and anyone. It has also made me ask, yet more, questions about my reading habits as a reader right now and moving forward.

      Hope you enjoy it when you read it.

  5. Oh I have to get this! Love your review and I’m currently reading The Snow Child and loving it so if you compared it to that then I simply must read this.

    • The Snow Child is a wonderful book isn’t it? In fact it has a lot in common with ‘Diving Belles’ and not just because of the rather magical other-worldly elements but also due to the sense of atmosphere, stunning prose and wonderful descriptions of human emotion. Definitely two of my favourite reads so far this year.

  6. Marte

    I loved this book, it’s truly a stunning collection. And we have the same favourite story as well. Beautiful, sad and haunting.

    • I think from all the reviews I have read the same one particular story sticks out which happens to be our favourite. That said every single story is wonderful, not a single dud in there. I can’t wait to see what she does with a novel, or more short stories.

  7. I haven’t come across this book yet but it sounds right up my street. thanks for the recommendation – off to purchase a copy right now!

  8. FleurFisher

    It is stunning – and you have made me want to go back to the beginning and start reading all over again.

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