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5 Sep 2012

Review: Diving Belles – During our trip to the States this summer, I had the pleasure of meeting the two editors with whom I worked on Black Flower. I’ll write more about that experience later, but today I wanted to talk about a book that was given to me by Jenna, the New York editor who was the first to work on my translation. It is a book of short stories called Diving Belles, and it is the first book published by a British author named Lucy Wood. Although the book was published in the UK in January, the US version (which differs only in that some epigraphs were added at the beginning of some of the stories to help readers understand them) was published at the beginning of August. Jenna gave me an advance reading copy of the US version with the condition that I let her know which story was my favorite. I started reading the book on the plane and finished after we returned to Korea, and now that the book is out I thought I would write a review of sorts.

“...if you have any love in your heart at all for magic and fantasy, you should get your hands on this book.”

Diving Belles is a very interesting collection of stories and one that appeals strongly to me because it deals with folklore. More specifically, it takes the folklore, fairy tales, legends, and ghost stories of the Cornish coast and brings them into modern times. The first story tells of a diving company that takes women down in a diving bell to bring back husbands who have been lured away by mermaids (thus the title of the story and the collection). The second story tells of another coastal town where the residents occasionally turn into standing stones. The third story tells of a widowed mother who is in love with a “little person,” otherwise known as a brownie. The twelve stories all deal with some tale or legend, but bring these tales out of the starlight of folklore and into the sun of the modern world.

When it comes to reviews, I’m not one for suspense, so I’ll just give you my conclusion now and gradually unravel (or at least attempt to unravel) the why: I enjoyed the book very much and would recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different. In fact, if you have any love in your heart at all for magic and fantasy, you should get your hands on this book. If you’re curious or require more evidence, though, read on.

Before I talk more specifically about the book, I should mention that the Cornish coast has a special place in my heart. When I studied for a semester in London as an undergrad, I took a trip to Cornwall and walked along the coast near Tintagel. Of all the time I spent in England, that brief trip to the Cornish coast occupies a disproportionately large place in my memories. I remember the tussocks of grass along the cliffside trail, the white foam on the rocks below, and the sea stretched out like a slate to the horizon. At one point during the walk I sat down on one of those tussocks and began to write down a poem on a piece of paper. I don’t remember what the poem was about, but it was most likely inspired by the land around me. I do remember, though, that I was reading the poem over after I had finished when suddenly the wind rose up and ripped the paper from my hand. Before I could move, the white paper twirled through the air toward the cliff’s edge, and then with a snap the wind whisked it down toward the sea. I sat there in silence, but before I could make up my mind how I felt about this turn of events, the paper came floating back up over the edge of the cliff and fluttered to rest beside me. I looked at it sidelong for a moment, and when it didn’t move I picked it up, folded it, and put it in my pocket. To be honest I was a bit disappointed, as if the sea had thought my poetry not worth keeping. At the time I only wrote down poems after I had fully composed them in my head, so losing the paper wasn’t a terribly big deal. She could have just kept it.

So although the time I spent in Cornwall was brief, it left a lasting impression on me, and I suppose there is a chance that my experiences colored my perception of Diving Belles. But even though it is the folklore of Cornwall that breathes life into these stories, a familiarity with Cornwall is not a necessity. More broadly, if you are familiar with the sea, I think you will appreciate a lot of the imagery here—although it is not present in all of the tales, I believe the sea is the undercurrent that runs through this book. More importantly, the very act of reading Diving Belles feels like being at sea, adrift at night in a dinghy that rises on the crests of great waves before sliding down the other side into the troughs. I felt like I was on the surface of something very deep, and at times I felt somewhat lost, with only glimpses of distant shore lights to guide me. But it was a wonderful and mysterious feeling.

That may sound rather cryptic and perhaps a bit too lyrical, so let me explain in more concrete terms. The stories in Diving Belles, as I mentioned above, all deal with some aspect of Cornish folklore. However, Lucy Wood does not feel the need to explain exactly what these elements of folklore are—that is, we do not get the folklore or folktale first and then the modern interpretation of it, we just get the modern interpretation and are left to guess at what the folkloric element might be. Sometimes it is fairly clear, but at other times it is more obscure. This is where that feeling of being lost comes from, like you are merely scratching at the surface of something. I think this mystery works, though—it is telling that I did not feel the need to actually research any of the folklore referenced in the stories, which is saying a lot for a folklore researcher. It’s kind of like how you almost don’t want to know how a particularly impressive magic trick is done, lest that knowledge spoil the magic. I think it was a wise choice to let the folklore speak for itself, and it was probably what made me love this collection of stories so much.

To wrap this up, I will talk briefly about four stories that I enjoyed. I imagine that some of the things I say in this part of the review could be considered “spoilers,” so if you have any desire to read this book at all, you should probably just stop reading and go buy the book. On the other hand, I doubt that anything I say next will spoil your enjoyment of the stories—as much of that enjoyment comes from the author’s style, voice, and particular skill at weaving tales—so if you are curious, read on.

Although I enjoyed the book as a whole and all the stories to varying degrees, there are four that really stand out for me: “Lights in Other People’s Houses,” “Notes From the House Spirits,” “Blue Moon,” and “Some Drolls Are Like That and Some Are Like This.”

“Lights in Other People’s Houses” is a ghost story, so right there that ticks off a box on my “list of things I enjoy.” It is the story of a young couple whose lives are interrupted by the ghost of a wrecker (someone who combs shipwrecks for salvage). Unlike in many other ghost stories I’ve read, though, the ghost is not an object of terror. He upsets their routine, certainly, and makes them uncomfortable, but he doesn’t actually scare them. The couple treat him like a guest who has overstayed his welcome but whom you just can’t kick out. Even though it is a ghost story, it definitely feels more about the people being haunted—especially the young woman—than the ghost doing the haunting. I particularly enjoyed how the ghost insisted on taking everything out of the boxes that were still lying around the house (even though the couple had been living there for eight months) and sorting their contents into items that had value and items that did not. The young woman would put the items back into the boxes and the ghost would take them out again. The symbolism in this was quite effective.

“Notes From the House Spirits” is a rather unique story in this collection. It is exactly what it says on the tin: a series of comments made by the spirits of a house. Some of the comments are long, stretching to several paragraphs, while others are a single sentence. People come and go, but the house spirits remain, commenting on the residents that move through their space. There is a narrative, but we only catch fleeting glimpses of it, like snatches of landscape through the windows of a fast-moving train. As a result, a tremendous amount of time passes in only seventeen pages, and when I finished reading I felt much older than I had been when I started. I will confess right now that this was my favorite story of the collection, and I wish I could tell you why. In the end, all I can say is that I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the mood, and it triggered the strongest emotional response in me.

“Blue Moon” is a clever tale, but it does not rest on its conceit and turns out to be quite a touching story. The conceit is not really a spoiler, because most readers will figure it out within the first two pages: the narrator works in Blue Moon Nursing Home, which turns out to be a nursing home for witches. I call this clever because I think it is a brilliant idea, but also because the word “witch” is never used once in the story—once again, we are given a rather fantastical situation that is presented to us as if it were quite real, and not once does the author wink at us. I don’t really want to say too much about this story, because although voice and atmosphere are as important to this tale as they are to the others, the plot here is much more distinct. There is a very clear narrative here that begins in medias res and then backtracks to show how the protagonist ended up where the story began, and why. I found it rewarding, so I will leave that for you to discover.

“Some Drolls Are Like This and Some Are Like That” is the last story in the collection. It was perhaps preordained that I would like this story, as it is about a storyteller—the sort of person that folklore researchers would seek out for their research. The problem is that this storyteller (or “droll teller”) has lost his stories, as his memory is not what it used to be. Still, when a couple turns up for a “story tour” that is not going to happen (because the man who runs it has gone on holiday), he sees an opportunity to make some quick money. For most of the tour he stumbles through his tales, but when they reach the end (and yeah, this is a spoiler), suddenly everything comes rushing back and he finds that he hasn’t lost his stories after all. It’s actually not nearly as trite as my description might make it sound, and when the story—and the book—ended with “and now here he was beginning again; somehow, despite everything, he was beginning again,” I had a big smile on my face. It just seemed fitting that a book that draws so heavily on folkore—which has no real beginning and no real end—should end in this way. Again, my own particular experience and field of study probably influenced me on this one, but I enjoyed it a lot.

So, there you have it. A bunch of words that don’t begin to do justice to what they are ostensibly about. To tell you the truth, I started writing this entry weeks ago, and if you count my disjointed email to Jenna, this review has been in the works for over a month. I have written and rewritten, cut and polished, and shuffled words around in what I hope is a more pleasing arrangement—but I suspect that I will still not really get at the heart of what I loved about Diving Belles. So I will end simply: it is a good book, written very well with a haunting atmosphere and captivating voice, and it woke up the magic inside of me.

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