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.
‘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.