Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

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Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Full disclosure: there’s a quotation from me on the back of Rosy Thornton’s new book and I make no excuses for reviewing the latest offering from someone whom I admire enormously. She is also, I have to admit, a friend. She became a friend BECAUSE I admired her before I met her. What happened was:  I moved to her home town, so  of course I got in touch with her.

I’m glad all that’s out of the way, because Thornton’s new book of (almost imperceptibly interlinked) short stories is so good and enjoyable in so many ways that it would be a great shame if it weren’t brought to the attention of as many people as possible.

Thornton’s work has changed and developed since I first read her, a good few years ago now. She started as a writer of very well-written, often humorous novels of the kind that no one can quite categorize. They’re not chick lit. They’re not romance. They’re not crime, or spies. They used to be classified as ‘discerning women’s fiction’ and I know this because my own novels came into the same category. I loved each one so  much that I read them as soon as they appeared.

Then she wrote The Tapestry of Love, which is set in France and is a more traditional (and still brilliantly written) romantic novel. With Ninepins, where she moved to a landscape of Fens and Cambridge, her focus shifted a little. Her novels, always sharp on matters of relationships, and emotions, acquired a deeper interest in landscape and what I remember from the book, (as well as the enjoyment of seeing the characters go through their traumas and joys) is a sense of the river, the house, the place in which the events take place.

The stories in Sandlands are all set in Suffolk. It’s not a county I know at all, but I feel as if I could find my way around this particular landscape blindfold. I know the Ship pub. The female rector reappears in several stories. I would recognise the Martello tower inhabited by Dr Whybrow. I’d know the old regulars in the Ship anywhere. And then there are the ghosts, which manifest themselves in many different forms and to many different characters. In these stories, we meet women, men, priests, academics, eccentrics, lovers and children. Animals and birds are important too, as in the first story in the book, called The White Doe, which returns to one of Thornton’s preoccupations: children. She’s very good at depicting them, but she also captures the essence of old men, witches, young beauties: you  name it.  My quotation on the back of the jacket says: ‘Thornton’s particular talent is the way she brings every single character to life.’ Well, I said it then and I simply repeat it now.

Reviews often tell you something is well-written. They then move on, as I have done above, to talking about something else. But I think a few quotations from these stories might demonstrate what I mean. It’s a question of economy and richness; an eye to see and the language to make us see too by the choice made to use, quite often,  one particular perfect word.

From Whispers, in which a man goes to live in a deserted Martello tower, where:

Even where nothing stirred, the air within the belly of the tower seemed to arc and crackle with life, as if detecting the presence of a listener.

That is both accurate and very, very spooky. Arc is the perfect word here…

From A Curiosity of Warnings, a beautiful description of the sea:

Lying here in the glimmer of the dying firelight, hearing the slop and suck of breaking waves at the waterline, there was a powerful sense of the collapsing telescope of time.

I felt like punching the air and saying: YES! when I read that.  Note that wonderfully accurate ‘slop.’

And finally,  in one of my favourite stories, The Interregnum, where a new-agey lady, appropriately called Ivy, comes to cover for the absent rector, we have this. Ivy has taken the children outdoors and shown them the Green Man. This is the reaction of Dorothy, through whose eyes events unfold.

…it did seem to her an odd choice of subject for the children’s drawings when there were plenty of nice saints inside the church where they would at least have kept their bottoms dry and their fingers a bit warmer. Dorothy herself had had a particular soft spot, as a little girl…..for the somewhat bouffant Lamb of the World behind the altar in the tall east window.

There are shades there of Barbara Pym and that ‘bouffant’ is one of the best examples of precisely the right word in the right place that I can remember. And I love ‘nice’ there, to describe the saints in the church.

It’s a very literary book. If you’ve read M.R.James, or Barbara Pym or the myths and legends of this country, you’ll get additional pleasure from the collection. But it’s a book that’s bound to  give pleasure to very many people. Entertaining, illuminating, chilling, sad, and often funny too, the whole collection hangs together seamlessly as a portrait of a fascinating part of the country. It deserves to be a huge success.

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Adèle Geras is the author of numerous successful novels for adults and children. She blogs at The History Girls, a joint blog written by authors of historical fiction and fantasy history for Junior (middle Grade), YA and adult readers.

Rosy Thornton, Sandlands, (Sandstone Press, 2016). 978-1910985045, 320 pp., paperback original.

Read an article by Rosy about Sandlands in our BookBuzz section here.

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