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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Debut Novel by Lucy Wood: "Weathering"

Author:  Lucy Wood  
Title:  Weathering
Plot Type:  Elements of Magical Realism (fantasy elements in the real world)
Ratings:  Violence2; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Bloomsbury USA (1/2016)

     Lucy Wood is the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories based on Cornish folklore entitled Diving Belles. She has been long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and was a runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Award. She has also been awarded the Holyer an Gof Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Lucy Wood has a Master's degree in creative writing from Exeter University. She lives in Devon. 

     Click HERE to read Lucy Wood's essay, "What I Learned from Writing My First Novel." Click HERE to read an interview with Lucy Wood about Weathering.

     Pearl doesn't know how she's ended up in the river—the same messy, cacophonous river in the same rain-soaked valley she'd been stuck in for years. But here her spirit swirls and stays. 

     Ada, Pearl's daughter, doesn't know how she's ended up back in the house she left thirteen years ago—with no heating apart from a fire she can't light, no way of getting around apart from an old car she's scared to drive, and no company apart from her own young daughter, Pepper. She wants to clear out Pearl's house so she can leave and not look back. 

     Pepper has grown used to following her restless mother from place to place, but this house, with its faded photographs, its boxes of cameras and its stuffed jackdaw, is something new. Fascinated by the scattering of people she meets, by the river that unfurls through the valley, and by the strange old woman who sits on the bank with her feet in the cold, coppery water, Pepper doesn't know why anyone would ever want to leave.

     As the first frosts of autumn herald the coming of a long winter and Pepper and Ada find themselves entangled with the life of the valley, with new companions who won't be closed out, each will discover the ways that places can take root inside us, bind us together, and become us.
     Wood sets her debut novel in a moldy wreck of a house in a rural, forested river valley in southwest England (light green area at lower left on this map). “It was an isolated place: trees thickening into woods, the sun barely reaching in. Gales funneling through. The moor rose up in the distance, humped and stark as something marooned. There were farms spread out for miles: sloping fields, derelict stores, barns. Cows bunching together and shifting their weight slowly from leg to leg. Steaming out of their noses like kettles…And the river. The river winding through it all.”

     The river is almost a character in the story as it swirls and seethes in the background throughout the book—sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent, and sometimes ferocious. "It was wide and brown, and it rippled and churned. There were deep creases when it went round rocks and a hollow, clunking noise. It looked strong, like a muscle." 

     The events take place between late fall and early spring. Here, life is driven by the harsh weather, particularly the precipitation, which ranges from rain to sleet to snow, thus providing a stark color palette of gloomy grays, dreary browns, and bleak whites. No pink and red sunrises here—dawn comes with “a glimmer of grey, which spread like the sky was being scrubbed.”  

     Into this setting, Wood places a 34-year-old single mother and her six-year-old daughter: Ada and Pepper. After more than a decade of moving from place to place trying to escape from her rural roots, Ada has returned home to handle the final affairs of her mother, Pearl, who has recently died…but has she?

     In the first chapter, we find Pearl struggling in the river: “Pearl flailed, grabbed at the water, but with what? Nothing to grab with but somehow she was back on the surface, dipping and whirling and strewn about. Bits of grey dust here, bits of grey dust there—almost impossible to recognise herself.” If you haven’t figured out what’s going on at this point, the second chapter makes it clear that Ada has just cast Pearl’s ashes into the river (from a box provided by the undertaker and engraved with the incongruous epithet, “A Beloved Pet.”)

     Wood describes her novel as "a magic realist ghost story," and she uses the third-person voice to tell her story from the perspectives of Pearl, Ada, and Pepper: three generations of women whose lives have as many parallels as differences. Pearl is trying to figure out what happened to her—how she got in the river—and in doing so she looks back on key events in her life. Ada plans to be off to her next destination quickly after cleaning out her mother’s rickety, run-down cottage and selling it to the first buyer she can find, but then she starts to believe that this place just might work for them. What Pepper wants is frequently unclear—even to herself. After all, she is only seven. Sometimes she wants to move on like they always do, but after she meets some adults and children who accept her eccentricities, she begins to believe that staying here might be best.

     Both Ada and Pepper see and have conversations with Pearl, but not spooky, scary conversations. To Pepper, Pearl appears as an old woman who hangs out by the river, soaking her bare feet in the frigid waters. To Ada, Pearl appears in the house, sharing memories and giving advice while she drips icy water in puddles on the floor and leaves small mounds of stones in her wake. As Pearl and Ada share their memories, the reader begins to fill in the blanks that are left early in the story. Objects that are mentioned in passing early on are found to have special meaning as the story progresses—for example, an ancient brown coat (“a long coat hanging down, like a person standing there waiting”) and a bright green belt—once a gift (worn twice) and now a discard.

     As fall shrivels into winter, Ada struggles with her guilt over having left her mother alone and failing to provide a stable environment for Pepper. Pepper gradually becomes less aloof and more content in the falling-down house and on the banks of the ever-changing river, where she begins to take photographs of birds with Pearl’s old camera.

     Wood’s greatest strength is in her vividly realistic imagery as she describes the deplorable details of the piteous reality of life in the ramshackle house with its eternally leaking roof and constant creaks and groans of settling, rotting wood. At first, Ada and Pepper subsist on canned foods: “Pepper…tilted her face up and dropped the peaches into her mouth one by one, like a bird eating orange fish.” That night, Ada is too uneasy to sleep as she listens to “the river’s boom as it muscled forward.” She sits down in “an armchair in the corner of the kitchen…among newspapers and crumbs. The fridge wheezed…The clock sometimes missed a tick — tick, pause, tick — and she found herself waiting for it nervously, like someone waiting for news.” Day by day, conditions in the house get worse: “Ice inside the windows like bumpy glass. Books curled and smelled like wet towels, doors swelled up and didn’t shut properly.”

     But gradually Ada renews old friendships and both she Pepper begin to make new friends, among them Tristan, a carpenter ten years younger than Ada who works hard at resetting the roof tiles. As winter draws near, in the garden “a single daffodil peeked out and, startled to see the white world, withered and turned brown.” (Earlier, in warmer weather, the daffodils bloomed brightly, “like lamps.”) The pattern of a friend’s ancient, musty couch is “orange and brown daisies and coffee stains.” As winter sets in, the chimney smoke struggled out into the snow. Brewing into icy smog. Stunned by the cold, it hung droopily, strung across the trees in hammocks.”

     In this vignette, Ada goes in search of firewood: “Out into the weather. The roar of the river. Cobwebs slung like hammocks in the hedge. The smell of bonfire and wet soil. Long grass soaked her shoes. Nothing in the vegetable plot except mushy weeds bowing to the earth, something sodden and green that may once have been a potato. In the shed, swallows’ nests festooned the beams. Old paint pots, their lids splashed with the blue of her bedroom, the yellow of the bathroom. The ax and saw were leaning against the wall but there was no wood, not even a twig for kindling.” These brief but vivid images are scattered throughout the book, making the scenes come alive for the reader.

     Although almost everything about the setting of this book is dark and dreary, the singularity of the characters and their interactions with each other and with nature (particularly the river and the rain and snow) add heart and soul to their stories. Each one faces the daily grind of life with such gumption (to use an old-fashioned word) that they steal your heart—particularly Pepper.

     This is a book that must be read with patience. It is very slow paced and very dark, but once I began to get more and more back-story on the characters—both primary and secondary—I truly did find myself pulled into their lives. Be aware that this is neither a plot-driven adventure nor a scary ghost story. Instead, it is a slice from the interconnected lives of three unforgettable women. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Weathering

     To enhance your reading experience by getting the full effect of the river, click HERE to listen to Water Stream, a frequency-shaped water stream voice generator that allows you to increase or decrease the volume and animation of the various water sounds. Play it in the background as you read.

NOTE: You will notice some irregularities in the spellings of words in the quotations (in green). That’s because the author is British and is using British spellings (for example, grey and recognise).

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