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‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood ****

I first read Lucy Wood’s debut short story collection, Diving Belles a couple of years ago, and very much enjoyed it.  Whilst recently tidying up my bookcase, I came across my lovely hardback copy, and decided to reread it.  Jon McGregor writes that Wood’s stories ‘are brilliantly uncanny: not because of the ghosts and giants and talking birds which haunt their margins, but because of what those unsettling presences mean for the very human characters at their centre.’  Ali Shaw calls these ‘stories from the places where magic and reality meet.  It is as if the Cornish moors and coasts have whispered secrets into Lucy Wood’s ears…’.

Magical realism is at play in almost all of Wood’s stories, all of which are set along her home county of Cornwall’s ‘ancient coast’.  Here, ‘the flotsam and jetsam of the past becomes caught in cross-currents of the present and, from time to time, a certain kind of magic can float to the surface’.  The setting is what connects the stories on the face of it, but so too does an unsettling sense one gets that darker things are just about to happen.  In ‘Diving Belles’, for instance, Wood writes: ‘The bell swayed.  Iris sat very still and tried not to imagine the weight of the water pressing in.  She took a couple of rattling breaths.  It was like those moments when she woke up in the middle of the night, breathless and alone, reaching across the bed and finding nothing but a heap of night-chilled pillows.’9781408830437

The titular story has stayed with me particularly since I first read it.  Everything about it – and, indeed, this is the case with every single one of Wood’s tales here – is gloriously vivid.  There are also fascinating undercurrents throughout which pull one in.  Wood’s descriptions have an unusual element to them; they are ethereal, almost, particularly with regard to the similes which she employs.  She shows, and never tells.  For example, ‘cuttlefish mooned about like lost old men’, ‘small icicles hung off the branches like the ghosts of leaves’, and ‘his right eye got slightly lazy, the iris edging outwards like an orbiting planet’.  In a story titled ‘Beachcombing’, Wood writes about the sea: ‘It was ugly a lot of the time, the sea, if you really looked at it.  Ugly and beautiful too, with its muscles and its shadows and its deep mutterings, as if it was constantly arguing with itself.’

The strains of magical realism, and a series of odd occurrences, are present in almost all of these stories, but each is written in such a way that one never stops to question them; they are rendered entirely realistic in the context of the stories, and are never overdone, exaggerated, or made farcical.  Realism and magical realism have been blended seamlessly.  In these stories, there is an invisible man, whom only the protagonist and her mother can see after using a particular eye cream; a drowned wrecker who inhabits a couples’ house; a giant boy who is just waiting for his growth spurt; a disgruntled grandmother who lives in a beachside cave; and a story told using the collective voice of house spirits.  Wood’s characters all have mysterious qualities to them.  In the story ‘Countless Stones’, its protagonist’s body undergoes a drastic change upon occasion: ‘She brushed her hair and tried not to think about it changing to stone, how heavy it would get, how it would drag on her neck and then clog up like it was full of grit, knitting together and drying and splitting and matting.’

There is a kind of quiet glory to Diving Belles.  It feels like such an effortless, and well tied together collection.  Wood is a very talented author.  These stories, all of which are imaginative and unusual, really strike a chord.  Such a sense of place is evoked here, and each story is incredibly immersive.  There is a darkness and a mysteriousness to Wood’s Cornwall; it is gritty, almost.  Diving Belles is a wonderful collection, which I am so pleased I chose to reconnect with.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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BookTube: Reviews – ‘Diving Belles’, ‘Five Children on the Western Front’, ‘The Midas Touch’ and ‘Confronting the Classics’

In which I talk to you, at length, about the following:

1. ‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood
2. ‘Five Children on the Western Front’ by Kate Saunders
3. ‘The Midas Touch: World Mythology in Bitesize Chunks’ by Mark Daniels
4. ‘Confronting the Classics’ by Mary Beard

All opinions are my own.  Obviously.