Folk. Book Review

FOLK by Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, h/b £14.99 e-book £12.99
Reviewed by Sydney Shields

Zoe Gilbert is a prolific short story writer, having had works published in a variety of anthologies. Her love of folk-literature is plain and her poetic language a pleasure to read, even when what she is describing is dark and of the other-world.

All 15 stories in FOLK are linked; they are various tales of Neverness, a village on the edge of the land, perched precariously on the coastline. Three “clefts” – sheer rock drops into the sea – scare parents for the sake of their children, sailors go out to sea and their families pray they return safe each day, the womenfolk are strong and strong-willed.

The collection opens with Prick Song (the pun is definitely intended), introducing us to the prominent characteristics of Neverness – passion and violence intermingled, nature sexualised, darkness and threat all around, masked by lust and youth. The boys of the village search the gorse bushes (known to them as “Mother Gorse”), hunting for arrows tied with ribbons, shot into the gorse by the village girls. Kisses are bites, the boys both love and hate Mother Gorse – she is cruel, and yet harbors the treasures they want most – the girls’ favours. The story ends in tragedy, and this tragedy runs through the other stories, as we learn more about the village’s inhabitants, their histories, their mingled families and shared heritage.

Rather like a soap opera, we meet recurring characters, villagers are mentioned in passing during other people’s stories, and it is a credit to Gilbert that I only had to flick back through the pages two or three times to remind myself who is who!

Fishskin, Hareskin – winner of the Costa Short Story Award 2014 – is typical of Gilbert’s collection and its recurring themes: Evret is a new mother, suffering with post-partum depression; her husband is a sailor, whom she punishes by keeping at home (by making reference to hares, deemed unlucky by sailors). Ironically, hares are her favourite animal, but she rejects her baby, instead returning again and again like a woman possessed to try and put right the house she lived in with her father. Only when she finds hare-skins in the outhouse, and stitches swaddling for her baby from them (pricking her fingers in the process, naturally), can she find peace.

More than anything, the stories in this collection made me think of ‘The Wicker Man’ – sex, nature and death closely bound to one another, in a community isolated from the rest of the ‘civilised’ world. Not only pre-Christian (there is no talk of God here), the presence of magic is accepted and certain: Verlyn Webbe has a wing instead of an arm, witches live in the woods and Sil – one of the village mothers – is from another world.

Sil is uncharacteristic of Neverness, not only because she is from elsewhere but because an act of selflessness brought her into the community, and the same selflessness keeps her there. The women born of the village are nothing else if not selfish, they regularly betray one another for menfolk and more than one woman belittles the love of a good man for her own selfish ends. The women are certainly empowered here!

Gilbert’s strength is her poetic language; her descriptions make you feel what you’re reading as well as see it in your mind’s eye. Within one story (Sticks Are for Fire), she conjures up an image of heart-rending sweetness: Gertrude Quick, a small child with a bent back, brave and swift, has “blackbird chicky hair”, not long followed by the description of Merry (the local witch) being murdered by a group of children.

My favourite story in the collection was Turning: a story of only two characters – a young boy called Finch, and a nameless Old Man –  this is like Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ brought into 4D: Gilbert’s language made me see the forest, hear the forest, smell the forest, and feel the forest. I interpreted the old man as an embodiment of The Green Man, and only one small incident makes me doubt this interpretation. Suffice to say, in Gilbert’s world, there is no beauty without death.

Much as I enjoyed these stories, I feel ‘enjoyed’ in some ways is not the right word, they are too dark and cruel for that and, yet, within them is such beauty and passion, that it would be unfair to use any other.