If you ask me what genre of film I like the least, my knee-jerk reaction would be to forcefully yelp “musicals!”, and yet Cabaret is one of my favourite ever movies. There are a whole host of bands I’m not keen on, but then I’ve had the chance to see several play live and their music suddenly all makes sense. Fantasy is something I’m not too keen on either, but after my husband Tom read out a pithy review of Game of Thrones in Rolling Stone magazine – “Fantasy for people who hate fantasy” – I gave it a try and was a devotee of all ten series.
Which brings me to my book choice… Tom bought me Folk by Zoe Gilbert as a birthday present. The cover – like a trippy William Morris print, complete with roses, birds and speckles of blood – was a thing of beauty. But once I read the back blurb my heart sank a little. It was a collection of short, folkloric stories, neither of which I’m particularly a fan of. Anticipating my slight dip in enthusiasm, Tom burst out, “It’s got great reviews. I bet Kate Bush would love it!” Curse him, he knew that would hit a nerve!
And so I dived into the world of a remote island life, with interweaving tales of the community stretching lazily over years, and I didn’t want to leave. Life on the island is full of wonders and it is harsh; straight from the offset we see a playful ritual for the village teenagers go tragically wrong, with youthful Crab Skerry scuttling after the other boys through a cluster of gorse bushes in search of ribbon-strewn arrows shot by the girls. In other stories, grandmother Win is trying to keep her granddaughter Plum safe from the strangest of strangers, little Iska worries and wonders why her mother seems like a changeling, and Verlyn Webbe shyly shows Linnet Lundren his disabled, feathered arm.
One of my favourite stories of the collection is The Swirling Cleft. Young Gad resents her newborn sibling and the shawl of mist that her step-mother Sil insists on wrapping around it, with almost devasting consequences. But Sil isn’t quite of this world; “In their house, there are warm smells, burned porridge and sheep’s wool and chimney soot, and there are cold smells, like Father’s rainy boots, and muddy flagstones and sodden thatch. Wherever Sil has been, though, there is a trace of seaweed in the air, of salt sea-fog and the insides of shells.”
With that glimpse, you can see that the author’s prose is gorgeous. Sometimes it’s simple and affecting, sometimes as plump and juicy as the fruit growing in the island’s hedgerows, sometimes it’s just downright dreamlike and delicious. But always, Gilbert keeps the reader rooted in a recognisable reality, so even the most magical of events feels tangible and true.
So hurray for Folk. And hurray for stepping out of your comfort zone and trying a genre you’re never normally attracted to. After all, you never know the delights you’ll find there.
Folk is published by Bloomsbury. Jacket design by David Mann, illustration copyright iStockphoto.
See also: A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham, reviewed by Graeme Fife
Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, reviewed by Yvonne Coppard
Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish, reviewed by Penny Dolan