Archives for posts with tag: Magical Realism

This week I’m recommending a collection of short stories loosely based on the folklore of the West of England. `Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood came out in 2012.  In America it is known as `Diving Belles and Other Stories’. Both titles seem too frivolous for Wood’s delicate but disturbing tales, though the first story does indeed feature a woman descending in an old-fashioned diving-bell to search the sea-bed for her lost husband. Does that pique your curiosity? It did mine.`Diving Belles’ contains twelve stories and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.

Wood grew up in Celtic Cornwall, that most legend-rich of English counties. To learn more about Cornwall’s mermaid-infested seas,  mysterious standing-stones, holy wells and haunted tin-mines, or its giants, pixies, witches, evil wreckers and spectral hounds, you should consult a 19th century book which I’m sure was one of Wood’s major sources – Robert Hunt’s `Popular Romances of the West of England’ (there are lots of paperback reprints). It has the more accurate subtitle – `The Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall’ and famously creepy illustrations by George Cruikshank. If you fancy hearing the stories of Giant Bolster and St Agnes, the Fairy Widower, Madge Figgy’s Chair, The Dancing Stones, and The Mermaid’s Revenge, or want to draw up a handy list of things to avoid (such as spilling salt, meeting people on the stairs, looking at the new moon through glass or failing to take your hat off when you see a magpie) this is the book for you.

Are Wood’s stories just straightforward retellings of these Cornish fairy tales? No. She uses her local source material in a much more innovative way. Wood doesn’t really do plots, she is more interested in character and situation; a preference which has got her published as Literary Fiction rather than Fantasy. At this point in the review I must make a confession. When I first read this book, I found many of the stories in it profoundly irritating. They seemed to stop just when things were getting interesting. Wood sets up extraordinary premises with great skill – such as a young couple meeting amongst the bones of giants (`The Giant’s Boneyard’), a woman slowly turning into stone (`Countless Stones’) or the ghost of a wrecker haunting a cluttered flat (`Lights in Other People’s Houses’) – but then, as so often in real life, nothing very conclusive seems to happen. I felt that most of the stories in `Diving Belles’ were too long, too leisurely and too lacking in drama- and yet they lingered in my thoughts. I found myself continuing some of the stories in my head, giving them endings and interpretations. It was almost as if I was under a spell… So, rather nervously, I decided to go ahead and recommend this book.

Wood’s stories have contemporary or timeless settings. They are packed with the small details of ordinary lives, while the supernatural elements are treated in a matter of fact way which is close to the Magical Realism school of fiction. When Rita feels herself begin to turn into stone `as if someone was building a house inside her’  (`Countless Stones’) she waters her plants and worries about whether the food in the fridge will go mouldy. In an updated version of the traditional tale of the ointment which allows you to see fairies, a woman gets a startling insight into the love-life of her divorced mother after using her eye cream (`Of Mothers and Little People’). Sometimes the transformation spells or magical beings seem to embody emotional states. In `Lights in Other People’s Houses’, audio-typist Maddy unpacks a watery ghost with the memories she’s been reluctant to deal with in a new home that she is failing to make her own.  The missing husband in `Diving Belles’ has run away to swim with the mermaids. Middle-aged men tend do that sort of thing. In `Wisht’ (which according to Hunt is a west-country word `meaning more than ordinary melancholy’) the Wisht Hounds who haunt Dartmoor at midnight are a pack of lonely men with failed relationships and dead-end jobs.

To give you more of a flavour of the book I’ll finish by describing two of the stories. `Blue Moon’ is one of the most haunting Fantasy stories I’ve ever read. It begins and ends with a woman trying to catch a frightened hare. Inbetween we learn that the narrator works in the Blue Moon Nursing Home for elderly witches. There is plenty of humour in her account of the problems when `you couldn’t serve tea without someone turning it into blood or oil and they were always in and out of each other’s rooms stealing wax and recipes…Our vacuum bags filled up with soil, twigs and fingernails.’ One of the residents is Mrs Tivoli, who looks 38 but must be at least 70, and has a sinister familiar in the form of a catfish called Maria. The narrator breaks the `no taking part in magic’ rule when she becomes fascinated by Mrs Tivoli’s collection of Witch Bottles. Each one contains somebody’s mistakes and regrets and the worst regret of all is for something that is about to happen, leaving an old lady frantic and alone. The description of exactly how a witch turns into a hare is worth the price of this book all on its own.

`Some Drolls Are Like That and Some Are Like This’ features an encounter between a droll-teller (a teller of traditional tales) and two of the creatures that the Cornish fear most – tourists. The droll-teller has lived in the same Cornish town for hundreds of years but he is forgetting his unwanted traditional tales and fading away. One morning he’s persuaded to lead a bogus `Story Tour’ for two out of season tourists who need a new narrative in their own lives now that their daughter has left home. At first, the droll-teller just makes up any old rubbish but as he and his receptive audience reach a disused tin-mine, `he could hear the story creeping out of the mine towards him.’ It is a new beginning for the droll-teller and for the rich seam of Cornish folklore mined by Wood. Until next week…



This week I’m recommending `Of Bees and Mist’, a novel by Erick Setiawan which features a character who may be the world’s most sinister mother-in-law.  Some reviewers called this book `an adult fairy tale’ but I would put it on the Magical Realism shelf.  `Of Bees and Mist’ was first published in 2010 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. Setiawan was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and moved to America when he was sixteen. He acknowledges his mother’s stories as one of the main inspirations for his debut novel. Some of them must have been ghost and horror stories.  Before we go any further – a health and safety warning. If  you happen to be pregnant, you might want to avoid this book. It is full of gruesome childbirth scenes and dead babies.

In an unnamed town a young girl called Meridia grows up in an unnaturally cold house where ghosts haunt the mirrors and an ivory mist always hovers over the front door. Her scientist father, Gabriel, seems to despise her and her bitter mother, Ravenna, doesn’t even remember that she has a daughter most of the time. Meridia is troubled by a recurring nightmare about something terrible that happened when she was small. Her nurse tells Meridia that Gabriel and Ravenna were once a loving couple who only began to quarrel after a mysterious wind got into the house. Before she can explain any further, the nurse is banished and Meridia is even more alone.

At thirteen, Meridia realizes that the ivory mist, and the yellow mist that surrounds her father whenever he leaves the house, are created by the  anger and jealousy Ravenna feels because Gabriel spends every night with his mistress. Meridia longs to be a comfort to her mother but the distance between them seems greater than ever. At fourteen, Meridia finds a friend whom nobody else can see, which gives her the confidence to explore her home town. At sixteen, she meets handsome Daniel during the Festival of the Spirits and falls `into devastating love’. Ignoring some sinister omens, Daniel proposes and introduces Meridia to his family – his father, Elias who runs a jewellery shop, his vibrant mother Eva, and his two very different younger sisters. Gabriel opposes the match so Ravenna supports Meridia but warns her, `do not repeat my mistakes.’

Meridia and Daniel’s `fairy tale’ wedding is not the end of the story. Meridia soon finds herself treated like a servant by her domineering mother-in-law.  She learns some dark secrets about Daniel’s family and struggles to help the victims of Eva’s domestic cruelty. When the young wife asserts her independence, it triggers an obsessive feud between Eva and Meridia. A feud which only worsens when Meridia gives birth to a son. Eva uses her distinctive form of magic to harass Elias and Daniel and bend them to her will. As the links which bind the two unhappy families become plainer, Meridia’s own marriage is threatened. Is there any hope that Meridia and Daniel can escape the curses that have blighted their parents’ lives?

`Of Bees and Mist’ has all the passion of Latin American Magical Realism without the politics. This is a novel more interested in families than nations, and the characters and setting are more important than the plot. In contrast to the speed and sparseness of traditional fairy tales (see my recent post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’), this narrative is slow moving and filled with luscious descriptions which build up an exotic atmosphere. Setiawan pulls off the clever trick of making the setting both very vague and very specific. Vague because we are never told the era and country in which the story takes place, just that Meridia lives `in the only part of the world where snow fell but never chilled, where the sun blazed with tropical intensity but never scorched’.  I pictured the period as early 20th century, since photographs and silent films are mentioned but there seems to be little else in the way of technology.

Meridia’s home town and its inhabitants display the odd mixture of eastern and western elements you often find in Japanese manga and animé. The names of the characters come from a variety of cultures and their physical characteristics from a variety of races. This gives the story a universal quality but could also have made it bland. That’s avoided through all the specific detail about what people eat and wear and about the objects, buildings and gardens which reflect the differing lifestyles of Meridia and Daniel’s families. Food is particularly well used in this book. One market-trader grows herbs on her own body and another swallows radishes and `spits them out chopped, seasoned, and pickled’, Meridia learns to enjoy life with her alter ego Hannah while feasting on strawberry sandwiches, deep-fried potato cakes, cinnamon pastries and preserved mango slices, and Ravenna furiously cooks for her husband eighteen dishes, such as `broiled snowfish sprinkled with nutmeg’ and `veal garnished with peaches and palm sugar’,  to mark `Eighteen years of grief and regret’. It’s the Fantasy version of fusion cusine.

The inhabitants of Meridia’s town (which almost counts as a character in its own right) also have a weird mix of beliefs, customs and superstitions.  The older generation at least still lives in fear of ghosts and spirits, so when someone is ill exorcists and soothsayers are summoned as well as doctors, fires are always kept burning in the Cemetery of Ashes and people hope to be transformed into light so that their souls will `drift like fireflies’ in an Immortal Forest. Setiawan draws on the Oriental concept of ghosts and demons being created by unfulfilled desires and uncontrolled emotions – especially those of women (see also `Peony in Love’ my Halloween recommendation for 2012). The envy of the townspeople physically strikes at happy couples, the chill that sets into Gabriel and Ravenna’s marriage after Meridia’s birth literally lowers the temperature of their home and Eva’s emotional abuse of her family manifests itself as a swarm of bees, buzzing with malice. Eva also uses pet animals to manipulate their owners’ feelings and blind them to the truth, but objects given with love can be imbued with the power to dispel this dark domestic magic.

In spite of all the magic there is nothing unrealistic about the emotional history of the two families at the heart of this story. They argue about money and the proper way to bring up children, and face common dilemmas such as how can a marriage survive when the wife goes off sex after having a baby? Setiawan makes it clear that his characters are vulnerable to magic because of their human failings. Gabriel and Ravenna are too proud to discuss their problems, Elias nearly always takes the line of least resistance, and Meridia’s secretive nature allows Eva to make her look like a disloyal wife. Eva herself becomes a monster because she demands that each member of her family love her far more than anyone else. The men in this book seem weak besides the central trio of strong-willed women – Meridia, Ravenna and Eva. The two older women change considerably in the course of the story. Eva misdirects all her energies into power-struggles and revenge but it’s a delight to see jealous Ravenna softening into the role of protective mother and loved grandmother. Meridia may be a rather reserved heroine but her constant fear of slipping into invisibility will strike a chord with many readers. `Of Bees and Mist’ is a family saga enriched by the Fantasy elements. If you like this novel at all, you will probably want to read it several times. Until two weeks time…