Reviewed by Judith Wilson
I began reading Weathering whilst staying on a Cornish estuary within sight of the sea, on a cold, damp day. This was fortuitous as the book is set beside a river, and the all-pervasive presence of the water is so forceful the river becomes a character in itself. This is Lucy Wood’s debut novel. Her collection of short stories, Diving Belles (Bloomsbury, 2012) was critically acclaimed and although I hadn’t read it, I was intrigued to see her first full-length work. Weathering is a book to savour: there are no plot twists, nor shock endings, instead it exudes a slow-burn energy. It is fiction that asks the reader to fully immerse in the beauty of the prose. I found myself thinking about it long after I turned the last page.
Weathering introduces us to three generations: Pearl, the grandmother, Ada, her 34-year-old daughter, and Pepper, Ada’s little girl. We discover that Pearl has just died, and Ada, who left her mother thirteen years previously, has returned to Pearl’s home to mend and redecorate the crumbling property, sell it and move on. ‘We’re not staying long’ Ada repeats throughout, recalling her childhood in the damp riverside house. It is autumn, and as Ada and Pepper settle into the neglected home, they meet people from the village: Luke, Pearl’s only friend, Judy, Ada’s estranged sister who farms locally, and Tristan, the gentle, watchful handyman.
Single mother Ada has had a peripatetic life, drifting from one town to the next: now she gets a kitchen job at the local pub. Pepper, slow at reading and writing but a highly observant child, isn’t sent to school: instead, she explores the countryside. She’s discovered a camera in her grandmother’s study and carries it obsessively. And Pearl – well, she may be dead, but she’s very much present. The book opens with the attention-grabbing line ‘Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river’ and that is our introduction to Pearl’s eccentric, querulous ‘voice’. Pearl’s spirit is clinging on to the house and river she’s known for decades. As the story unfolds, we follow Pearl, Ada and Pepper’s alternating third person narratives, interweaving present-day events – Ada’s burgeoning relationship with Tristan, Pepper’s new friendships – with mother and daughter’s memories from the past.
The pace is initially slow, and around eighty pages in, I impatiently wondered ‘What is going to happen?’ But I should not have worried because award-winning Lucy Wood, who completed an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University, is an author in charge of her craft. If the book lacks urgency, it makes up for it in original, poetic language. There are heart-stopping, evocative descriptions of the English countryside, the vagaries of the weather, the disintegration of the derelict house: paint flaking, pipes creaking. ‘It was like the house was talking to itself,’ Pepper thinks. One third into the book, my patience was rewarded. Pearl has stopped floundering in the river and turns up, intriguingly leaking water from her pockets and speckling frost onto the carpet. And Ada and Pepper begin to see and hear her.
Once the three generations connect, the book picks up pace: we learn of Ada’s childhood, of Pearl’s early days, her obsession with the river. She spends long hours, camera held aloft, to get the perfect shot of a heron. The characterisation is sparely done, yet satisfying: Pearl is free-spirited, Ada earthy, Pepper a curious, observant child. I particularly warmed to her: she’s funny, intriguing and sweet. Lucy Wood’s depiction of relationships is confident and watchful, from the alternately guarded yet intimate exchanges between Ada and sister Judy, to the expertly drawn contrasts and similarities between the three generations of women. Pearl eats food from tins, yet Ada is an instinctive cook; Pearl loves photography, and so does six-year-old Pepper. And all three love the river.
This river, menacing yet alluring, remains a strong presence: increasingly, so too do the weather and nature. Winter brings snow and torrential rain. To elaborate would spoil the plot trajectory and how this gentle, haunting family tale ends. But it won’t give too much away to reassure that Pearl finds peace, and as a result, so do Ada and Pepper. When I finished, I ran my hands over the raised autumn leaf skeleton on the dust jacket, the spring green leaf on the reverse. Like these illustrations, Weathering took me from autumn to spring, through the cycle of birth to death and rebirth. It reminded me of the beauty and frustration of mother-daughter relationships, and of the enduring power of love, even beyond the grave.
Weathering is a book to be read in slow time, abandoning rational facts, giving in to whimsy and luxuriating in intoxicating imagery. I can’t wait to see what Lucy Wood writes next.
Lucy Wood, Weathering (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 978 1 4088 4093. 304pp., hardback.
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