Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
30 March 2012
Picture a map of Britain that shows the places about which tales of the fantastic are being told in the twenty-first century. London dominates, but other areas are being filled: in Wales, for example, there is Seren Books's ongoing series of reimagined stories from the Mabinogion; in Cumbria, Tom Fletcher's tales of horror. Diving Belles occupies Cornwall on that map, as Lucy Wood presents in her debut collection a set of stories which bring elements of Cornish folklore into a contemporary setting.
Wood often takes a practical approach to the supernatural in her stories, generating a fair amount of humor in the process. "Blue Moon" takes place in a nursing home for witches, whose staff have to contend with the uniquely stubborn stains left behind from mixing potions in the bath ("We'd scrub for hours, the stuff corroding away six pairs of rubber gloves, hearing faint shrieks coming from the smears" (p. 172)), or residents spontaneously transforming into animals. But, amusing though it is to read about Wood's unnamed narrator trying to catch Mrs Tivoli (who has just turned into a hare as "Blue Moon" begins), the tale, in common with the rest of Diving Belles, does not play primarily for laughs: there's a genuine feel of mystery and danger to the magic encountered by the protagonist as she spends more time with Mrs Tivoli pre-transformation; a clear sense that, when the same Mr Webb whom she has seen in a vision conjured by the witch pays a visit to the home, a story is being enacted which is beyond the narrator's understanding—one to which she (and hence also the reader) is a mere bystander.
A similar combination of humor and seriousness can be found in "Countless Stones," whose protagonist, Rita, is beginning to petrify, and not for the first time:
How long did she have? About ten hours. The whole thing usually took about ten hours. It was slow, but not so slow that she couldn't feel it if she concentrated: each skin layer seizing up and turning to stone from the inside out, a sort of tightening, a sort of ache, a sort of clicking as stone was added to stone, as if someone were building a house inside her. (p. 20)
The description of the sensations in the passage from which I quote here is vividly precise in its detail; but the horror it evokes is tempered by the contrasting mundanity of Rita's response—checking there isn't food in the fridge that might go off, making sure that her houseplants are in the right places. The author describes Rita's everyday life in a similar fashion, and in similar detail, to her experience of turning to stone; by doing so, Wood draws an equivalence between the mundane and the fantastic, which she carries through into the plot. Rita spends most of the day covered by the story in the company of her ex, Danny, who rings her up because his car won't start, then talks her into joining him on his viewing of a new house ("Rita listened, knowing already that she would take him to see the house, knowing that Danny knew she would" (p. 27)). Rita can no more move on from Danny than she can move physically as a standing stone; her petrification is thereby an effective metaphor for emotional stasis.
The stories in Diving Belles combine the fantastic with a focus on character in varying proportions; in "The Wishing Tree," the emphasis is firmly on the latter. Tessa and her mother June travel to visit one of June's friends; whilst trying to find their way, the two come across a tree with objects tied to it. They had come here on a previous trip, and Tessa recalls how she couldn't think of a wish; in any case, her offering has not fared well:
Then she saw her hairband. It looked like it had rotted. The elastic had erupted out of it and the whole thing was frayed, thin and crumbly. Her stupid non-wish had rotted. (p. 151)
The repetition, the short sentences and stark detail (here as elsewhere in "The Wishing Tree") underline Tessa's despondency: throughout her life, she has felt unable to take her place in the forward march of the generations. Even now, when June has cancer, Tessa is frustrated by not being able to provide the daughterly support that she feels she should. These emotions are tied to physicality, as here, when Tessa falls over:
June helped her up and dusted off the back of her T-shirt. She had strong, capable hands. Tessa had always assumed her own hands would change somehow when she reached thirty, becoming strong hands for brushing off backs and changing tyres, but they hadn't so far. (p. 158)
At the heart of "The Wishing Tree" is the story of how Tessa becomes someone who helps her mother, rather than being the one who needs help. She achieves this transition through swimming, which brings together Wood's earlier uses of physicality and landscape (the wishing tree having represented Tessa's feelings of inadequacy, and the sea now being the source of her way forward), which gives the whole piece a fine aesthetic balance.
An individual growing as a person is also the focus of "The Giant's Boneyard," the only story of the twelve in Diving Belles that doesn't quite clear the bar for me (albeit only relatively). This is the tale of twelve year old Gog; his evolving friendship with/attraction to a girl named Sunshine in the gloomy last days of summer; and the boneyard which the pair enjoy exploring. Gog's name recalls that of the giant Gogmagog of Cornish folklore; here, Gog is a boy of average height, but feels that he's bigger:
He was a pretty big inconsistency in his family: his father had been a giant and everyone was waiting for him to catch up. So far, all he'd got was a phantom body which confused him [and] tripped him up. (p. 92)
Gog's "phantom body" thus becomes a neat metaphor for the awkwardness and uncertainty of growing up through puberty; his burgeoning closeness to Sunshine also gains representation in the story, in the form of a giant ribcage, to which Sunshine is drawn, and which Gog then comes to appreciate. But the sharp teenage banter of Gog and Sunshine often seems to work against the subtler mythical atmosphere which Wood is creating elsewhere in the story, whereas in other pieces, the modern and magical work in greater harmony.
Whilst many of Wood's stories bring a touch of the fantastic to the present day, some bring the supernatural right to the fore. One such is "Notes from the House Spirits"—which, as its title suggests, is a window on the life of a house from the viewpoint of the spirits who live there. The spirits don't really understand the comings and goings of humans, and their expressions of this naivety can be amusing:
It is rude to leave suddenly, without any notice. She didn't give us any notice. There weren't any boxes. She didn't take any of her things away. Didn't she like it here? She left all her things behind. What does she expect us to do with it all? There is nothing that we can do with it, except count it, except look carefully through it, and we have done that already. (p. 131)
The section immediately prior to the above passage suggests—to readers, if not to the house spirits—that the woman in question may have absconded with a lover. But there's a poignancy running through this story, which comes from the spirits' casual relationship with the passage of time, and the way that the inhabitants of the house blend into each other for them. Many human stories may play out within the house, but for the spirits—and hence for us as readers—there are no characters, only anonymous actors. All might as well be a dream, and the tone of Wood's prose reflects this:
Brick by brick, more houses are being built somewhere near by. When do we arrive in them? We don't know. Were we already there and the house was built around us? We don't know. (pp. 141-2)
Rounding off the collection is a piece called "Some Drolls Are Like That and Others Are Like This," in which a traditional Cornish droll teller takes a pair of tourists on a story tour of the town, though he's getting rusty:
the right story wouldn't come, the parts wouldn't join up. So, he had let the stories slip away. They weren't buried anywhere. He thought they might have been buried somewhere. He realised now why the world had become flat and empty. Things were ending. He felt, what did he feel? Scattered perhaps, stretched thinner, relieved. (pp. 212-3)
In this tale, stories themselves perform the same function that fantasy has previously in Diving Belles: they run through and intertwine with the real world. Over the course of "Some Drolls," the droll teller rediscovers his gift for storytelling—his world comes alive with tales once again. Likewise, Lucy Wood's stories are alive with magic.