I very much enjoyed Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was a Rabbit, so when an unsolicited copy of her second book, A Year of Marvellous Ways, was delivered by the postman, I found myself rather eager to read it immediately.
Whilst I was (somehow) entirely unaware of its publication, I was pleased to see that A Year of Marvellous Ways has been incredibly well received. Patrick Gale says that the book is ‘like Dylan Thomas given a sexy rewrite by Angela Carter’, and Emylia Hall writes: ‘Folkloric, poetic, gorgeous. All I needed was a campfire and a bottle of moonshine’. The novel’s blurb heralds it ‘a glorious, life-affirming story about the magic in everyday life and the pull of the sea, the healing powers of storytelling and sloe gin, love and death and how we carry on when grief comes snapping at our heels’.
In terms of the storyline, A Year of Marvellous Ways is rather different to that of When God Was a Rabbit, but Winman has still placed her focus entirely upon her characters and their relationships, something which I feel that she does incredibly well. The novel is set ‘in the wilds of Cornwall’ following the Second World War, and tells of a relatively unusual friendship, ‘between an old woman coming to the end of her life and a young soldier who sees little point in going on with his’.
Marvellous Ways is the main protagonist of the piece. She has just begun her ninetieth year, and still lives beside the remote Cornish creek close to the hamlet of St Ophere, where she has spent the majority of her days: ‘It had been a destination village on account of its bread. Now, in 1947, it was nothing more than a desolate reminder of the cruel passing of time’. When Francis Drake, a young soldier, comes to the creek, intent upon an important task, ‘broken in body and spirit’, she comes to his aid without any hesitation: ‘Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death, as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream’.
Marvellous’ world comes to life immediately; the places which she knows and loves are so well evoked. When placed against them, she herself becomes more of a realistic character, and one can easily imagine her bumbling down to the creek and swimming, or gathering her supper. Winman’s writing is strong, and her descriptions are gorgeous; Marvellous, for example, has eyes, ‘as blue and fickle as the sea’. Startling occurrences and imagery come almost out of nowhere, and immediately capture the attention. Winman’s initial descriptions conjure vivid images in the mind’s eye: ‘She had watched him go into the church as a shadow, and when he had emerged he was still a shadow with deep hues of mauve emanating from his dark skin, and from his mouth the glowing tip of a cigarette pulsed like the heart of a night insect’. She has a marvellous way, too, of using all of the senses to add both realism and a dreamlike feel to the whole: ‘at the solid crunch of earth’, ‘a thick crust of hoar frost’ and ‘the brittle light’, for example. The tranquillity of Cornwall also provides a sharp and much-needed contrast to the mud-filled battlefields of the Second World War.
As well as learning about Marvellous’ 1947 present, details about her past are also woven in. Her life has been a sad one, filled with heartbreak. Of a past relationship, Winman writes, ‘… and they kissed and she wished they hadn’t because she could taste his sadness on his breath. Could taste his other life and his other women too, and that’s why she knew he wouldn’t stay’. The element of relationship building, which is an intrinsic portion of the plot, is both realistic and rather beguiling: ‘And that was the night they began to share dreams because that’s what happens when you both know the weight of another’s soul’.
The third person perspective has been used to good effect, and it certainly allows Winman to follow each of her protagonists here. Personally, however, I found Marvellous’ story far more intriguing than Drake’s. Those portions of Drake’s story which should have been packed with emotion felt a little detached. Whilst Winman has a good grasp of her omniscient voice within A Year of Marvellous Ways, it is nowhere near as captivating as the voice which so vividly comes to life within When God Was a Rabbit.
Despite this, A Year of Marvellous Ways is a strong novel, which demonstrates the extent of how enduring friendships and promises can be. The structure which Winman has made use of does work to her advantage, incorporating as it does both the present and the past, along with elements of magical realism. Her characters are, for the most part, memorable constructions, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.