The island village of Neverness is a place outside Time, where the air is thick with the scent of gorse and the tang of the sea, the lives of its inhabitants intertwined with Nature, its mysteries, enchantments, and horrors.
Folk, the debut from Costa Short Story Award winning writer Zoe Gilbert, is an interesting title: marketed as a novel, structured like a short story collection. So, which is it?
Well, it occupies a strange in-between territory: each chapter is a separate story, but, like a set of matryoshka dolls, they are connected by place, recurring characters and the passage of time, each story nesting inside the other.
The opening story, ‘Prick Song’, sets the tone. Taking place as the “door of the year” is closing, the hinge between summer and approaching winter, the title has a double meaning. It refers to the island tradition of girls shooting beribboned arrows into the gorse headland (before it’s set fire to), in a ritual faintly reminiscent of The Wicker Man, to ‘burn away’ the year’s accumulated grievances. These the boys must then find, emerging from the thorns with lips pricked pincushion red for the promise of a kiss – or something more.
Crab Skerry wants the honour of finding the arrow lodged the deepest, in the heart of the gorse maze. But this year the gorse burning may end in tragedy…
And things continue in a similar vein: ancient folklore meeting with the characters’ earthly – and often earthy – lives and desires.
One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘Long Have I Lain Beside the Water’, about a man named Galushen, who still mourns his first love (who drowned) despite the fact he married her sister. Meanwhile his daughter May (a fiddler) sets off on a task to find her musical ‘soul’, in preparation for the day when she will succeed the current master troubadour.
This story explore various themes: being haunted, be it by past sorrows or deeds; the corrosive natures of sorrow and jealousy; the redemptive potential of parental love; artistic inspiration and integrity, and how truth will always find ways to be revealed. This is all dealt with in a relatively short space of time, and the ending plaits the two strands together beautifully, showing that, even with truth, closure is not always possible but the burden of sorrow can be shared.
The risk with short story collections is that some stories won’t work as well as others, but that isn’t the case here. Each story, each segment of the larger whole, from the longest to the shortest, feels perfectly balanced and pulls its weight.
Some may struggle with the format, preferring it either be a proper novel or a more clearly defined story collection. But, if you can get past that, Folk is a deeply rewarding read, full of vinegar as well as honey, darkness as well as light, and imagery that is often as beautiful as it is haunting.
Folk is published in hardback by Bloomsbury. Price £14.99.
Carolyn Percy has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Newport University and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Swansea University. She is a regular contributor of articles and reviews to Wales Arts Review.