Folk by Zoe Gilbert has been described as folkloric, enchanting, timeless, allegorical, haunting, dreamlike and fantastical; it has been associated with The Wicker Man, Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. A fair few of the major British newspapers have said lots of worthy, Literary (capital L) things about it. None of these notions are wrong, but I’m going to try not to do that. This is going to be one of those posts, however, where I can’t say half of what I want about just how amazing the experience of reading this was simply because I don’t have the words to catch it. So be patient with me as I fumble around trying to get to something true.
This was the perfect book to read for Wyrd and Wonder month. Folk is both weird, in that it’s nothing like anything I’ve read before, and wonderful (quite literally full of wonders), and an unadulterated joy to read. It’s one of those books that I’m not going to loudly recommend to everyone I meet, but rather jealously guard and only mention to those few people I believe will appreciate it (at least enough not to say anything bad about it to me). It’s a book to be discovered, to be picked up because of its gorgeous cover, to be chanced upon.
Structurally Folk is a set of fifteen interlinked short stories that tell the tale of a generation of people on the island of Neverness, and while I guess you could dip in and read just one or two of them the way you might a regular short story collection, to do that here would be to miss all the wonderful cross threads that link them together. The book has the feeling of an oral history, with images and characters recurring, larger or smaller depending on whose memories are being tapped, and coloured by various moods and personalities. As you read through, the stories accrete beautifully into something bigger and more unfathomable than its parts, but nonetheless deeply satisfying.
I’d be very interested in some wider responses to Folk because I feel that it’s incredibly British, it almost vibrates with the smells, sights and sounds of our countryside and coastlines, and, not having travelled all that much, I have no way of knowing how universal (or local) these depictions are. All I know is that the world of Neverness is incredibly familiar, that it pulls at my own experiences of roaming the woodlands, fields and beaches of home, that the customs and traditions of these fictional island people mirror those I encountered in the stories of my childhood and those odd lingering superstitions of my grandparents. The stories of Folk feel like stories I may simply have forgotten in growing up.
It’s also a very sensual reading experience. Gilbert’s language is poetry and I spent most of my first read-through writing down beautiful sentences and turns of phrase (I’d nearly written out the whole book before I realised what I was doing and added it to my to-buy list). I shall give you a small, fragrant taste:
“He steps between two trunks, into the wood’s held breath, and stands. The quiet is a blanket about his head.”
“The barley in the fields fattens and leans towards the moon. Mice scurry in its maze, their trails mapped in the starry sky by the sweep of owls.”
It’s the kind of writing that shuts out all those clamouring thoughts you have as your brain both parses it and appreciates it all at once. It’s writing full of sensory information: the smells of the different seasons, daylight and night-time sounds, the feel of weather, and absolutely evocative of a pre-Industrial world. A world in which it’s not so unbelievable that a man could be born with a wing instead of an arm, that Jack Frost could be real, that a selkie/mermaid could have chosen to live on land with a man and his daughter, that a young woman could fall in love with a water-bull. The line between the truly magical and Neverness superstition is so blurred that everything is tinged with a charmed quality and even the natural world – wind, trees, mist – appears to be sentient, and complicit in the events that unfold.
And there are some fabulous characters, (with fabulous names). I particularly loved bent-backed Gertie Quirk, and Hark Oxley both as a young boy teasing girls and as a lovelorn young man. The characters with the sadder stories seemed to stick with me most: Granny Winfrid, Verlyn Webbe, Gill Skerry, Galushen and Old Merry Mort, and also maybe the creepy Guller the fowlmonger. The overall tone of the book is gently melancholic although there are not only tragic deaths, but also uncertain mothers and uncanny mothers, jealous sisters, close brothers and not-so-close brothers, ambitions great and small, romances both requited and unrequited, and a murder or two. There is also a lovely vein of humour running through, usually a bit saucy in nature – jokes made among the teenage boys and girls of Neverness, and among the married. It all weaves together to create a picture of village life in which everybody knows everybody else’s business, and yet no-one truly knows what’s in each person’s heart.
There aren’t many books I think of as perfect. And recently I’ve been trying to work out what exactly I mean when I think of my perfect books. The last book that I thought of in this way, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer has very little in common with Folk and yet they both created beautifully tight and intricate patterns in my mind (I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve no other way to describe how I experience books both during and after having read them). I think what I mean by perfect is something that is completely itself. Neither Annihilation nor Folk seek to explain themselves to their readers, the story is laid out for you to take or leave, explanation is something you must decide for yourself. So I’m going with that definition for now, although I’ll keep pondering on it.
Finally, just for interest’s sake, part of my dictionary’s definition for the lovely word folk:
” … 3 (treated as pl) the common people, those who determine the character of a nation or people and preserve its traditions, arts and crafts, legends etc, from generation to generation [Old English folc.]”
The New Penguin English Dictionary, 2000