Lucy Wood’s 2012 short story collection Diving Belles was likened to the work of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, and the cover of her first novel Weathering quotes Michel Faber: Fresh, distinctive voices are actually very rare. Lucy Wood has one.
The praise is justified. Like Carter and Atwood, Wood wooes us into a different relationship with time and corporeal reality, so that we’re unsurprised by the continuing presence in the story of a drowned woman, who not only reflects on what’s going on but actually makes things happen. She packs boxes, fixes windows, gives advice and takes photos.
Pearl is drowning in the river as the book opens:
She floated, the water pulling and sucking at her. Hard to gather her thoughts, which drifted and wedged into the riverbank. Which had never been much use. Where was she again? It was hard to keep track of it. Washing over stones, circling around stones, lodged underneath a stone. Stones bloody everywhere, and a rivery smell, like fresh air and mud and something green dying. Shadows and copper glints. Heaps of silt. And cold the sort of cold she couldn’t abide, that bit right in. (2)
But that’s far from the end of Pearl, who continues to mess around in her beloved river and show up in the lives of her daughter Ada and 6-year-old granddaughter Pepper. Gentle Ada, bewildered by the way her life’s run away from her, and knotty little Pepper come to clear up and sell the tumbledown house by the river where Pearl has lived alone since Ada left 13 years ago. The house is a nightmare, and it’s clear that Pearl has been barely surviving there. Ada has to learn to deal with an ancient boiler and a leaking roof, and steel herself to drive Pearl’s rusty car into the distant, unfriendly village, often in pouring rain or snowstorms. The dyslexic Pepper, a serial failure at school, has to get used to living in yet another place and coming to grips with school and other kids. The absence of a husband, lover or father is a painful gap in the lives of all three.
How better to talk about this book than to give you a taste of Wood’s voice?
The field turned to tussocks and gorse as it edged onto the moor, the ground boggy and splashy. Everything was merging colours: greens, greys, rich browns like a horse’s back. The maroon of dying bracken. Red water welling through peat.(94)
There were coppery leaves everywhere and plants dying back to a dusky colour, and a pile of sawn branches that had orange insides bright as lamps. There was a shiny black beetle that looked blue close up, mounds of horse poo, piles of pine needles that she poked until ants came. (54)
Pepper skidded her foot on the gravel so that she stopped swinging. She leaned in close to Petey. ‘Have you ever had a pet?’ she said.
Petey shook his head. ‘I want one.’
‘Yes,’ Pepper said, ‘but you get a thing and you think it will sit on your lap, or come and find you, or not kill anything or stop you feeling lonely. But it doesn’t.’
‘I know it,’ Petey said.
Pepper sighed and tipped herself backwards on the swing. Five was too young to understand.
‘I got a fishing rod,’ Petey said. ‘And it was meant to be the best one and it was my birthday present and my Christmas present and it broke first time. And another time I had a clown at a party and he was meant to sing songs and be funny but all he did was eat all the food and steal my grandpa’s watch. And they said a night-light would help me but it keeps me awake even more.’
They both sat in silence for a while. The swing’s chain rattled.
‘I hate clowns,’ Pepper said. (143)
It’s an ambitious book, but it works. There is on one level an almost conventional narrative in the wry social realism of Ada and Pepper’s struggles with village life, but a much more powerful drive in the merging of these individual spirits in the spirit of the river. Chapters are interspersed from the three points of view, and from the chaos of the early events the lives of the three begin to weave together. After death, Pearl can see her own life clearly. She can act in the lives of Ada and Pepper as she never could in real life, speaking her mind, warning and advising. Pepper, the child who has never had a real home, is at ease with the presence of Pearl, and something in Ada begins to release and unfurl. And Pearl? More and more, Pearl becomes the river.
Lucy Wood is the real deal. I was keen to know more about her after reading Weathering. Here’s an interview:
Lucy Wood, Weathering (Bloomsbury 2015).