When I read a debut author whose writing I love there is always a mixture of feelings when their second book arrives. As a rule I am both ridiculously excited as their new work could be even better than its predecessor and also really nervous because it might not be. Tricky. It was with this mixed bag of emotions that I met A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, whose debut novel When God Was a Rabbit I absolutely loved when I read and also had the pleasure of raving to everyone about at my first (short lived, weeps) literary salon in Manchester ‘Bookmarked’ and beyond. I finally read it on holiday, aptly in a desolate cove.
Tinder Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Marvellous Ways is waiting for something, she doesn’t know what on earth it might be, she just knows she has to wait. Well, she was told to wait by one of the three loves of her life, albeit from beyond the grave in a dream. (This might all sound bonkers, it is, stay with me.) What she is waiting for turns out to be Francis Drake who, on a mission after the Second World War to pass a letter from a soldier to his father, ends up washed up on the shore of the cove where Marvellous spends much of her time. Drake it seems has given up on life and had it not been to keep a promise to a dying man might have ended it all, Marvellous realises her mission is to bring back to him a passion for life and a life yet to live whilst being close to the end of her own.
My initial summation actually makes the novel sound both a little too simple and also much more linear than it is to read. Whilst it has a beginning, middle and end (as all books do) it also has a fluidity and magical element to it that means it all flows and interlinks, if that makes sense? The first thirty pages tell of how Marvellous lives, waiting, by the sea in Cornwall in her late eighties and creates a wonderful image of an eccentric character who likes to swim naked every day, regardless of the weather, and potter around the hamlet nearby sharing her stories. We then switch to Drake at a pivotal moment in World War II and then follow him back to London where he tries to find Missy, the woman he believes is the love of his life.
She watched the tide of life below. People doing their very best, trying so hard to make it better. And she took to wondering, like so many often did, what it had all been for. The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.
What he finds is both a woman and a city changed forever and an incident that soon sees Drake fleeing London and into the cove and life of Marvellous. It is from this point that the novel, I think, really grabs the reader as we enter the world of Marvellous Ways again and get lost in both the stories that she tells Drake (how her mother was a mermaid, how she had had three great loves of her life; a lighthouse keeper and two brothers, how starfish came to be) and some of the lives of those who live nearby and become part of Drakes new life. I was soon swept up in what becomes a fascinating and beguiling narrative of one woman’s history and also the history of some of the lives that she has touched; be they a minor character or a major one, be they good or bad.
Rumour has two very distinct sounds. When it flies free the sound is similar to a ship’s hull scraping against a harbour wall. But when rumour is caught, the sound is of expiration: like a fearful sigh in the vacant dark whorls of long-abandoned shells. And marvellous pointed to the whelks.
She knew these sounds well because she’d had a rumour-catcher outside her caravan and it had caught many over the years, most having been carried on the breath of Mrs Hard. She’d launched rumours like royalty launched ships.
Without a doubt, for me, it is Sarah Winman’s creation of Marvellous Ways that gives life to the whole of the novel. What is unusual for me though is that I would have liked the book to be longer. This is unusual as regular visitors here will know that I can veer away from both lengthy novels and novels about the world wars. I would have, shock horror, liked to have had more of both Drake and Missy’s life during the war. Drake for the impact of the war and the propulsion to do what he does, which I think Winman would have written incredibly. Mainly for Missy though because the glimpse of the life that she led during the war (which I knew nothing about and won’t tell you because I really do want you to read this book) made me have a small jaw drop and I wanted to get more of an insight into how that slowly affected her rather than how much it had at the point we meet her. This all sounds very vague because I don’t want to ruin anything. It also sounds like a backhanded compliment which I don’t mean it to because I enjoyed the experience of A Year of Marvellous Ways as it was.
The reason for this is simply Sarah Winman’s writing. Throughout the novel you will be greeted on every page with sentences as simple and sharp as Hatred doesn’t need much watering or care. Just a nudge. She can also be quite whimsical and florid but never at the cost of being twee or unbelievable, just slightly magical. Speaking of which there are some truly gorgeous mini stories, legends and fables that interweave the stories of Drake and Marvellous which add to it immensely. One I particularly loved, and almost included as a quote in this review but didn’t because I want you to go and read it yourself, is that of how starfish came to be. It is just utterly gorgeous.
All these traits of her prose excel when combined to create characters and evoke places and atmospheres. She creates, erm, marvellous fully formed, and often flawed) characters. Marvellous is the standout of the lot unsurprisingly, her narrative just resonates and charms even when she is telling you some of the most unbelievable or cuckoo sounding stories, but that is what is so vivid and wonderful about her. It is hard to describe. It is not just characters that Winman is a wonder at, she excels in settings too. War torn London comes fully to life with all its shattered homes, hearts and hopes. Her writing of Cornwall, with its sense of the possibility of the impossible, comes off the page just as it does when you go and visit it now, all these years later there is still something quite ‘other’ about that part of the world.
I could ramble on and on about A Year of Marvellous Ways for much longer but I will save you from that. Suffice to say I really enjoyed it and loved getting enthralled and (sometimes a little literally) lost in the story of Drake, the story of Marvellous and the story of Drake and Marvellous. It somehow manages to be a story of nothing and a story of everything, most importantly though it is a (sorry in advance) marvellous story of stories and a particularly (sorry again) marvellous storyteller. I ended the book with quite the bottom lip wobble because I didn’t really want Winman’s fairytale to end.
Have you read A Year of Marvellous Ways, or indeed When God Was a Rabbit, and if so what did you think? Have you any second novels of debut authors you’ve loved left nervously on the shelf and if so which ones? I now need to get a wriggle on with both S J Watson (who was also at the first Bookmarked with Sarah) and Lucy Wood’s second books very soon, as they have been waiting on my shelves far too long.