Review by Helen Parry
I have been a fan of Lucy Wood’s writing since reading her début collection of short stories, Diving Belles, and so I was thrilled to see that she was publishing a new book. The Sing of the Shore, like Diving Belles, is a collection of stories all rooted very firmly in the sea-fringed landscape of Cornwall, but whereas Diving Belles played with local folklore and peopled its pages with mermaids, witches and house spirits, the forces at work in The Sing of the Shore are less tangible and more unsettling, the sense of threat more palpable.
The stories are technically very diverse but are all about the people who live in Cornwall after the holiday-makers have left: the bored, unhappy teenagers of ‘Home Scar’, who live for ‘helium, cheap biscuits from the out-of-date food shop, that sticky hairspray that smelled like the bottle of drink they’d found washed up on the beach last summer’; the twenty-somethings in ‘Dreckly’, ‘Way the Hell Out’ and ‘Cables’, who hang out in greasy cafés and seaside benches and feel that life is passing them by; Kensa, running her failing, rotting campsite in the title story. Often without financial security, many characters are concerned with somehow creating a home in precarious circumstances. Ivor, in ‘Home Scar’, tries to make an empty holiday house homey and form a sort of surrogate family with his friends; the family in ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ are at the mercy of their landlords and constantly moving house, trying to make the best of it and bear the challenges that their rootlessness poses.
The empty houses, faces at windows and mouldy caravans that throng Wood’s stories undermine the idea of home as a place of shelter and identity. These houses feel haunted. Those characters who find a measure of security in their homes are shown to be misplaced in their confidence. Jay, at home all day with the baby and a guilty conscience while his wife works, feels increasingly menaced by the eccentric inhabitants of the neighbouring terraced house whom he hears but never sees, and by the ‘dishes’, ‘hard white shapes that looked like chess pieces waiting to be played […] data gatherers, listening stations, […] sometimes, if Jay watched carefully, he would see them slowly turn, like a flower might’. Mary and Vincent have retired to a little white house on the cliffs, having rid themselves of ‘loose ends’: ‘everything was sorted and in order: their work had reached its natural end point; finances were tied up; their children were married and settled’; they live without TV or mobile phone signal and don’t even have spare cups and plates for visitors. But there is something they never discuss, and soon their cultivated isolation is being broached by the sea’s leavings, other people’s stinking rubbish. In ‘Way the Hell Out’, Fran and Morrie discuss the strange goings-on at the Ellis house, repeatedly sold to second-homers who are then frightened out of it – by whom and why?
There is an even stronger sense of the uncanny in the hypnotic ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’, in which a woman going home across the fields is confronted repeatedly by a herd of cows. But who or what is she? And why do the cows block her path? Wood expertly piles on the sense of dread while maintaining ambiguity. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a list of deaths that occur over twelve months with a dryly comic commentary upon them: who is keeping record? Death, or a recording angel?
Being rooted in a house can drive people to extreme acts, as in ‘Standing Water’, in which a squabble between neighbours over the maintenance of a drain takes a sinister turn. In contrast, the ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ drift on the current of life, guiding their craft where they can but having little control over its destination. Bryce in ‘The Sing of the Shore’ is another drifter, always moving on, while the surfer-father in ‘The Life of a Wave’ lives to ride the waves, to be carried along, and for experiences like this:
The white water is coming, it’s pounding into you, and then the board is lifting and you’re going, you’re shooting forwards […] For a moment you’re above the noise and tumult. Everything is pushing and pulling but you are suspended, still: a force, for a moment, that is unacted upon.
The stories are interconnected, sometimes by characters, sometimes by images or phrases, sometimes by theme; and they reflect and enrich each other. The beachcombings in ‘Dreckly’ are distorted into the compulsive collecting in ‘Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict’. What we think may ‘really’ have happened in ‘Standing Water’ is influenced by the elements of the supernatural in ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ and ‘A Year of Buryings’. And they are wonderfully varied in the ways that they are written, so that some are very intense, others chatty; some quite detached and some more emotionally involving; most of them unsettling and some very eerie indeed. Wood needs only a sentence for a character sketch: ‘[Ruby] met Nathan at a garage sale, both of them buying someone else’s chipped plates and flat cushions’ tells you not only that Ruby and Nathan are poor but that their outlook on life has been constricted, they expect flat cushions and won’t complain.
Always in the background, depositing seaweed or plastic bottles, or lapping against the characters’ toes, is the sea. Wood has chosen as her epigraph:
The sing of the shore: the sound made by waves breaking, varying with the nature of the shore – sand, pebbles, boulders, scarped cliff, or reefs and ledges of rock – and thus giving the experienced fisherman an indication of his position when fog or darkness make land invisible (From A Glossary of Cornish Sea-Words by Robert Morton Nance)
How you experience the sea depends on what you are made of. In these stories, the characters are buffeted by forces they cannot control – time, death, nature, unreliable landlords. They experience these forces as different types of shore experience the sea; they resist them, are eaten by them or let them carry them along; they are more resilient than you might expect. The stories of The Sing of the Shore continue to resonate long after you have closed its covers, and form a remarkably fine collection, beautiful and unsettling.
Helen blogs at A Gallimaufry
Lucy Wood, The Sing of the Sea (Fourth Estate, 2018). ISBN 978-0-00-819339-3, 228pp, hardback
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