Author Zoe Gilbert
Genre Folk Tales, Short Story Collection
Page Length 256
Publication Date 08 Feb 2018
Publisher Bloomsbury Publishing
Read Date Jun 2018
The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place.
The air hangs rich with the coconut-scent of gorse and the salty bite of the sea. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments.
Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms, haunted by horses and her father’s wishes.
As the tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation, their earthy desires, resentments, idle gossip and painful losses create a staggeringly original world. Crackling with echoes of ancient folklore, but entirely, wonderfully, her own, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a dark, beautiful and intoxicating debut.
I received a copy of this from Netgalley. My thanks to the publisher for this opportunity. These are my honest thoughts of the book.
Unsettling – Enchanting – Emotive
A little on each story.
Prick Song – 4 stars
Each year, the boys of the village of Neverness prepare for the Gorse Maze race. The pretty young maidens of the village shoot arrows into the dense gorse maze. Attached to those arrows are ribbons with the girls names on. The boy that collects that arrow, gets to kiss the girl (and sometimes more! Wink wink). The boys get scratched, pricked and bloody during the event and it is considered a right of passage. There is honor in providing a bloody kiss. But beware, for within the gorse maze lives the Gorse Mother. A witch like figure that is out to claim the most bloody and torn boy for her own.
I loved this. It’s a great opening story with a very unsettling feeling throughout. Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.
Fishskin, Hareskin – 3 stars
A story exploring postnatal depression (I think it’s referred to as postpartum depression in some English speaking lands). This story continues with the dark overtones and themes as Prick Song.
It was that night, she was sure, in their bed that reeked of the sea, that Turpin planted inside her the gleaming herring that swelled in her belly, all winter and into spring, slithering and flicking its awful tail. How glad she has been to be rid of it, this last month.
The Neverness Ox-men – 4 stars
Behind a waterfall, lives a fortune telling ox. The ox is often visited by the villagers of Neverness to have their future appraised. But there is a secret here; the ox isn’t an actual real life fortune telling ox. It’s one of the male members of the Oxley family hidden inside an ox hide. Little Hark Oxley is new to fulfilling this traditional role. During his first time, he upsets Gertrude Quirk. He feels the need to make amends, and in the meantime, makes a new friend.
This has a slightly different tone to the other stories so far. It’s more lighthearted and whimsical. There is still the unanswered question though of why the Oxley’s maintain this act.
The True Tale of Jack Frost – 3 stars
A story teller is recounting the tale of Jack Frost to a group of teenage girls (possibly as part of their school education?). But one lass is bored of this tale. She has heard it many times before. So she decides to put her fingers in her ears and tell herself a new version.
A story exploring themes of siblings, favourites, hardship and jealousy with a dark atmosphere channeling that of the best fairy tales.
Sticks are for Fire – 3 stars
Shilla Quirk and her two daughters (Bryony and Gertrude [from The Neverness Ox-Men]) are out digging one day. The daughters coorce their mother in to telling them about what became of Merry Mort. Merry Mort was a woman who was burned alive by the villagers. What Brynoy and Gertrude didn’t know until now was how Shilla took part in the lynching. But, telling this tale brings an element of risk for Shilla.
It was great to see Gertrude back. I really like that character. This story starts off a little shallow, and I found the jumping about to be a little disorientating. Towards the end though, the story really picks up and left my heart in shatters.
Water Bull Bride – 5 stars
There’s a monster in them waters. And sometimes, it comes knocking on the door, looking for a fine young maiden to take as his own. Plum’s gran can cast spells by stitching yarn. She is trying to protect Plum. But after Plum encounters the monster, she becomes infatuated with him. As is often the case in this collection, there are stories within stories. Plum tells of a time when a group of village teenagers met at the Hart Oak tree, to play a game involving coloured threads that determines who gets to kiss who. A dark age spin the bottle, if you will.
I put it down to the nightmares that must shadow the mind of any half-drowned person, but Plum looked blank at me from her bed when I spoke of that cursed night, trying to nudge out the truth. She’d tell not a word of the dreadful chase nor how he got hold of her, how he plunged her down, but those that have come so close to death often forget.
I bloody loved this I did. So much happens in it for what is such a short story. In just 17 pages or so, Gilbert manages to craft a story that covers themes of relationships, parenthood, lust, infatuation, love, abuse, deceit and control. All done exceedingly well.
Swirling Cleft – 5 stars
Gad has had the same mother, Sil, for about 8 years, nearly as long as her whole life. When Sil gives birth she wraps the new baby in a grey cobweb like shawl that can only be handled with tongues. Gad is curious to what this shawl is and why the baby is wrapped in it. So that night, whilst Gad’s angry drunken father is out of the home, and Sil is recovering from giving birth, Gad steals the shawl. But when she puts it against her skin, it disintegrates into nothing more than water. This act though, now leaves the baby at risk of being no more, and Gad must travel to the dangerous Swirling Cleft to collect some of the mist that hangs there.
I’ve seen a few reviews where people refer to this as a Selkie story. I’m not convinced that Sil is a Selkie. This story, like Water Bull Bride, is packed with so much content for its size. This is a dark story, with some great creepy mysterious events and some tense action thrown in along the way. It’s excellent. I read this whilst in the garden one evening. We have had weeks of very dry, hot weather in the UK (so much so, the hills have literally been on fire for weeks now!). I had headphones on listening to thunderstorm sounds (as I often do when reading) and out of nowhere, the clouds dropped and we got some rain. It was the perfect setting to be reading a story like this.
Thunder Cracks – 4 stars
Madden Lightfoot is a sleepwalker. One night when sleepwalking she lets out the horses of the nearby Prowd farm. Pike Lightfoot doesn’t really understand sleepwalking, but knows that his daughter wanders during the night. Being a young maiden and wandering the night is not only a dangerous activity, but Pike can’t risk his daughter letting out the horses again or getting up to other nefarious deeds. Despite his attempts to keep her indoors, one night during a heavy storm, Madden goes wandering and Pike goes in search of her, leading to disastrous consequences. A beautiful but very sad story.
I’ve heard it said, a strong wind can send a man’s mind sailing out of his head. It’s that way with horses. Perhaps a storm, the kind that shifts trees and blows out new caves, can do worse. A storm like we had, that autumn, might be enough to possess a person. It might send a girl’s sense skittering out of her head and leave only thunder in its place.
Fun Stark fact! Sleepwalking runs in my family. Some members have even driven to places whilst sleeping! I shit you not. I occasionally sleepwalk but I don’t drive to places. I have woken up in different rooms than I went to sleep in and on 2 occasions I have completely rearranged furniture in a room. So, if you ever see me walking down the street carrying a chest of drawers, don’t wake me!
Earth is Not for Eating – 5 stars
Several years on from Fishskin, Hareskin and Iska is no longer a bab. It’s difficult to say but I would say she’s maybe 7-8 years old now. Her mammy is pregnant again. Her pa has been out at sea for some time. Iska is convinced by her friend, Pud Rincepan, that her mother must be a changeling due to her recent change in behaviour.
Oh my. Such a sad story. I cried. It broke my heart several times. From how Iska is confused over how her mother doesn’t appreciate the last egg, to the burning of the hareskin, to how Iska waits for her pa to return from sea (he isn’t returning). This is a masterclass in manipulating a reader’s emotions. There’s something about scared vulnerable children that really gets me every time. I needed a meditative break after this one.
Long Have I Lain Beside the Water – 4 stars
A young man is in love with a beautiful woman. She drowns in the river. And so the man marries her almost as beautiful sister and has a daughter with her. Nothing weird ‘bout that! 16 years later his daughter, May, is quite the fiddler. Her fiddle master has set her the task of heading out into the wilderness to find her musical spirit. But sometimes the music that comes along with finding your spirit can also hold memories of the past.
I think this was supposed to be a murder mystery, but there really isn’t any real mystery here. It was obvious as to what happened from pretty early on in the story. And that’s the only reason this didn’t get 5 stars because has a lot of bloody excellent elements. A melancholic story exploring grief.
Verlyn’s Blessing – 4 stars
In Prick Song we got a brief mention of a boy named Verlyn who has a wing instead of an arm. In the years that have passed since Prick Song, Verlyn has grown to be a man, has got married and has a son. Verlyn wants to be accepted in the society around him, but knows that this can not be because of his wing. So instead he spends his time limiting his exposure to the world, working out of sight and trying to live a quiet life.
Verlyn Webbe has a wing in place of an arm. It is too large, the grey speckled feathers reaching down to his ankle. The weight of it has pulled his shoulders out of kilter. He wears a coat, to hide the crookedness in his body that is otherwise strong, the wing filling out one sleeve like a burst bolster with feathers poking from the cuff.
From the first mention of Verlyn in Prick Song, I was anticipating when his story would come up. I was very happy when I read that opening paragraph. This is a really sad story, but has an important and delightful message about acceptance and pride. Verlyn has amazing skills, he is kind hearted and a decent person. Yet due to his disability, through the (not so) subtle actions of those around him, he often receives the message that he has something to be ashamed of and that he should hide away from society. Verlyn is a sweetheart, and I fell in love with him. Spread that wing Verlyn, spread it proud.
Kite – 4 stars
This is really sad. It’s a really difficult story to review. So I’ll keep it brief. Firwit is living with and caring for his brother, Murnon, who is struggling with mental health issues. Murnon takes his own life. The rest of the story is centred around Firwit’s grief and sorrow. He is haunted by the sight of his brother’s body but learns that, for some, death can be freeing. Kite is heartbreaking in many different ways. I think Zoe Gilbert did an excellent job of crafting an engaging and entertaining story around such a taboo subject whilst remaining sensitive and respectful to the issues explored.
A Winter Guest – 3 stars
Redwing sails in to Neverness once a year. He is somewhat of a local hero. The free ladies swoon over him. Including Clotha. Clotha hooks up with Redwing for a one night stand. But in the morning, Redwing isn’t ready to go back to sea yet, and so he simply stays. As Clotha’s one night stand turns into a three night stand, and then into a week long stand, and then a month long stand and so on, she starts to get uncomfortable with the situation. She is attracted to him, but he has just taken up residence in her bed, eating her food, and taking up so much of her time. After several months, after winter has passed, Redwing sails back out to sea, claiming he will return like he did last year, to be with Clotha again. The thing is, once he has gone, Clotha decides she doesn’t want him back. Luckily, her good friend Gad has a plan on how to help.
I think this story was meant to highlight how much power men can have in a relationship. I think this is a commentary on how some women can feel pressured by some men into doing things they don’t want to do. I don’t think Redwing is necessarily aware of how he makes Clotha feel. I don’t think he recognises his overbearing, and somewhat suffocating ways. I think he genuinely feels like Clotha is fine with the situation. His ignorance did not make me feel sympathetic to him though. If Neverness had twitter, Redwing would not stand a chance!
Turning – 2 stars
The boy, Finch, is learning to play his fiddle. But he isn’t great at it yet and so he must walk into the woods to practice until he can make a tune. One day, whilst in the woods, he meets an old man. The old man leads him to a long ago burned cabin where he keeps bees. (I think it’s Merry Mort’s cabin from Sticks are for Fire.) Finch asks for some honey, which he can have, when it is ready. Over a year the old man teaches Finch to be patient, to listen to the song of the bees, to read the signs of nature.
I think the old man in this was meant to a Green Man of sorts, or maybe a nature spirit/guardian. Either way, you would think with my nature spirit worshiping ways, I would love this story. But it fell a bit flat. We never really get to know Finch too well like we do with the other characters in this book, and so I didn’t really feel an attachment to what was happening. And really, not very much does happen. This story just felt a little out of place from the rest of the collection.
Tether – 4 stars
And we come full circle. It’s the time of the year for the gorse maze race. A new generation of lads and lasses, grandchildren of the characters from the first story, Prick Song, are preparing. The girls are firing their arrows with ribbons attached, and the lads are waiting in the caves (probably getting their hair cut short). Nearby, Hark Oxley and Firwit, now two old men, sit on a tree stump. Firwit questions why Hark never married. Hark tells of how he only ever wanted one woman, Madden Lightfoot. Hark lost Madden to a sickness. The same sickness that Firwit lost his brother to. Enter wavy screen and flashback music here. Hark remembers how he lost his love. How she became addicted to the toadstool tea that Guller would give to her. How she would then be tethered to a tree, and fly in the sky like a Kite, whilst tripping.
At the start, this story feels like a wrap up. But then it takes a much sadder, and heartbreaking turn. A story about addiction, and how those in the pulls of it can not see what is happening around them until it is too late. Although this was a sad story, it was a nice one to finish on.
A fair amount of my reading is short story collections and I can safely say that I haven’t quite read one like this before. All the stories are set in the same island village, Neverness, over a period of many years. We meet characters as children, then re-meet them years later when they are married, have kids, and are adulting. We meet their children, and their grandchildren. This is not your average village. It is full of odd traditions and customs. Throw in some supernatural aspects with some clever writing and we end up with a wonderful collection of enchanting folk/fairy tales.
I’m not 100% sure of the time period these are set in, but the culture is one of the middle ages. Zoe Gilbert does an exceptional job of world building and exploring the culture of the Neverness folk. Each story reveals another local tradition, or insight into the everyday lives of these people. These stories cover real, heavy subjects such as depression, domestic abuse, social standards/expectations, addiction, love and loss.
I like the descriptive writing, but it did get a little too much at times. It’s a strong prose and a few stories felt heavy with unnecessary filler. Throughout, the narrative often jumps about between time, perspective and reality. There are many stories within stories. This style of writing would be perfect for a fantasy novel, but can be a little disorientating for a short story.
This has a very large cast of characters. And if you follow my reviews, you may know that I don’t really like large casts. Many characters either appear or are mentioned in several stories. Leading characters of a story become minor characters in another. Sometimes I could remember who was who, but often I just recognised the name and couldn’t remember which story they were from. I think if I was able to remember each character properly, I would have enjoyed this more. But with that said, it does work in the overall. This style made the village feel like a real living organism in itself.
It took me a couple of stories to get into this, but once I had become familiar with the world and writing style I started to really enjoy it. There are a number of stories in the middle of the collection that are near perfection.
Considering the stories as a whole, there is a reflection here on how no matter what happens in our lives, no matter how much sorrow, pain, joy, and happiness we experience, life goes on. People have children, they have children, people marry, people die, traditions continue and life is a never ending cycle. I loved these characters, and I loved this world. I loved the supernatural elements and the uneasy, melancholic tone throughout.
Anyway, I’m off to frolic in the woods to try and find my musical spirit. Until next time, Peace and Love.