by Zoe Gilbert
We are stories. We walk through a narrative of inter-dependent connections, as individuals, outwards to family, community, town, city, county, nation. We move through time at varying speeds, cogs of unimaginable complexity grinding against other cogs of unimaginable complexity. It’s no wonder there are stories, no wonder we create them.
Imagine ‘us’ as a bell curve. The majority inhabit the average, tales that barely move the outer dials from cradle to grave (even if they impact the people closest to us with bumper-car brutality). Some of us are edge-dwellers, purposefully or by accident. Our stories are randomly plucked from obscurity to flame briefly as highlights on the rim of the curve, human solar flares. The reasons are many. It may be for hereditary reasons – descended from kings. We might invent or create something that raises our profile – discoverer of penicillin – or become famous or infamous against our will; our stoic refusal to give up a seat, taking five shots to kill a musician outside the Dakota. Our story may last a decade, a century, a millenium, imprinted on the world around us. And some stories don’t belong on the curve at all.
It may have been the farms and woods surrounding Watership Down, or the 100 Acre Wood, though I suspect my love of stories that came with maps took flight because of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Perhaps the best known example of a novel where the map and its contents are as important as the narrative itself, the author having laboured for decades to breathe life into an imagined cartography via the geography, the history and, most particularly, the languages of Middle Earth, LOTR triggered in me not only a love of Fantasy (and latterly, Science Fiction), but the power of being able to place a story in worlds very different to our own and make it… real.
This was fiction where the land hid powerful jewellery for hundreds of years, where good and evil eschewed the complicated colours of our reality for something more black and white and easier to align to, where (whisper it) magic was as common as mushrooms and made the impossible possible. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy followed shortly after, then David Edding’s Belgariad. Moorcock, Gavriel Kay (whose Tigana remains a classic), Gaiman, and on. How better to broaden the mind than to allow the possibility of opening up worlds, in the many, and not just the one? Days spent poring over Barbara Strachey’s brilliant representation of the Fellowhip’s journey to Mordor, torch under the duvet picking out the islands of Earthsea’s archipelago, mourning for the loss of a kingdom’s name in the Peninsula of the Palm. Tracing journeys. Understanding difference.
Gilbert’s Folk is something different again. It’s not fantasy; I should make that clear. It’s not magic realism either. These are faery stories, informed by a thousand years of old wives tales, myths handed down from generation to generation, often tempered to dilute the cruel basis on which they were born. Neverness is our world and isn’t. It shares modern folk-DNA, the uncomfortable edge of reality, that small and harrowing corridor with Daisy Johnson, David Almond, Angela Carter, Max Porter. A sense that not all is right, that it never was, and that sometimes ‘not all is right’ is, in fact, how it is.
The map, and the land it draws out, is everything in this book. Neverness is both full of detail and none. Enticingly, an inset makes it clear the village in which Zoe Gilbert’s stories take place is a small dot in the South-West of a land much greater than that surrounding the homes of Ervet and Turpin, Sil and Gad, Winfred and Plum. What tales lie waiting in the blank interior we know nothing about? Fingers crossed Gilbert ventures further afield in the future. But don’t be hasty; if it’s detail you want, this book overflows with it, as natural as a mountain stream falling into a pool. Everything blossoms from the page in rich fecundity, and the land itself the equal of those who live on and in it. There is something on every page that leaves you spinning in the breeze in admiration.
‘Listen, for the beat that runs through the gorse maze. It is an early twilight, the opening between last sun and first star, the door of the day closing until, soon, night will seal it shut.’
‘The copse at the river bend is bunched together at the bank, her ma said, and soon the trees will slither into the torrent one by one, like reluctant horses into a ford.’
Plunge your eyes into this book. It’s like being up to your arms in the most fertile loam, where language and story and land rush at you with exponential speed, so that your eyes run ahead of you, falling over themselves to gather in the prose, to harvest the beauty. Deep anchors in faery tales, roots in campfire monologues, dreams of Grimm-dark horror. Legends rise from rivers, rivers harbour secrets; secrets shatter lives. The human, and not quite human, protagonists are richly detailed, but I would argue the land is the key to this book’s special qualities, for the way it shapes their time on it, nurtures, chastises, teases, covets and punishes them. They are bound to each other, in waking and in dream.
‘Something greater. Real joy, and joy that harms nobody to take. Guller means no ill, and folk need some comfort.’ Hark shook his head. ‘But it’s not real. It’s just toadstool dreaming.’ ‘A dream’s as real as life, for the dreamer. What’s the difference?’
Every chapter – a tale in its own right – uncovers some facet of the relationship, turns over a strangely shaped rock in a field or disturbs a hitherto overlooked tree. Tales bend first one way then another, and you are often off-balance. This is all to the good; a true balance would reduce the need for story-telling. Neverness is give and take, fight and flight, lose and win, gather and find and work and worry, love and loss, and each one of those as much an impact of and by the land as it is the men and women who march to its tune. A symbiosis that fuels each generation of villagers and replenishes the connection with their home.
‘The invisible trees along the path are so quiet that he can hear the water whispering from far off. It confuses the wood, makes the waterfall closer and then far away, and the familiar root shapes and winds in the path mix about so he stumbles once, and then again. How do you search for a bitty thing in the pitch dark?’
Fiddlers search for the tune they will carry all their lives. Boys delight in injury and risk death for the sake of a kiss. The sins of a sister return in bone and melody. The promise of a lover becomes a millstone, the promise of escape breaks hearts. We are stories.
‘The wind drums its song at the door all night, a beat for the devil to dance to, leaving the prints of hooves around the house. Winfred tugs her stitches tight to keep him out. I watch my needle dive through the weft, the stab and the give, and dream up patterns I’d never stitch, secret rhythms.’
It’s increasingly rare – something to do with my age – that a book leaves such an indelible mark on me. Even rarer that it does so immediately. I was marked by Folk before I’d finished it. The map of these stories, of Neverness, the village beyond the curve, is one I will wander in often. I look forward to losing my way again.
Quotes used with permission of the author.
Published by: Bloomsbury