I maaaay have bought this partially on the strength of the cover. It’s just so pretty! And when you have as little blurb as I did when I first came across it, the cover does make a huge difference… to be honest, I think picking books by their covers is entirely valid in most cases anyway? The cover is designed to appeal to presumably the target market of the book. If a cover appeals to me, there’s a good chance I am the target market for that book, so I may well enjoy it. Ditto for the inverse – there are plenty of features I’m used to seeing and dismissing on covers, having read enough books for which that feature and me not liking the book are correlated to use it as a valid metric. Sure, it’s not 100% proof (especially if the cover I see is the US one, which seem to be near-universally dire), but it has, on the whole, steered me fairly well and I’m not going to stop using it when browsing in shops. Or on the Guardian website, in this case. It was not a bad decision here at all.
The blurb I got (seeing it, as I did, before the book came out) was:
The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place.
The air hangs rich with the coconut-scent of gorse and the salty bite of the sea. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline.
The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments.
Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms, haunted by horses and her father’s wishes.
As the tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation, their earthy desires, resentments, idle gossip and painful losses create a staggeringly original world. Crackling with echoes of ancient folklore, but entirely, wonderfully, her own, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a dark, beautiful and intoxicating debut.
Which, while definitely enticing, is not a huge amount to go on. So yeah, the cover mattered.
And, as I say, it worked. Because, not to point too fine a point on it, this book is fantastic. The prose is beautiful, the imagery vivid and strange, and the stories interweave to form a peculiar, coherent and mesmerising whole by the time you get to the end. At the start, each story seems relatively self-contained – maybe it mentions one character from the previous story, or a place – but as the book goes on, they build and build until each story interleaves with the others, linking each character into the lives of their whole community. You finish with a sense of interconnectedness, of a village where no action goes without impact on those around it, where no tale can be told in isolation. Leaving aside just how enjoyable it was to read, it’s also stunningly clever, when you sit back and think how much the author has done to bring it to this point. It is a book to finish, then sit back and think “wow”.
Aside from the structure – though that is what will leave the most lasting impression on me, I suspect – there’s a lot to be said for the world building and character development too. Neverness, a village in an unspecified time and location, yet still somehow faintly placeable and familiar, is wonderfully evoked, and slowly. Each story focuses inward, on the people and happenings within, but manages to build detail upon detail of the world the book is so firmly rooted in it could not be divorced. There’s a map at the front, presumably in case you need to think about how the places described interconnect, but I never felt the need to go back to it after my initial look – everything makes sense, you don’t need visual aids to fit it together. It feels intimately told too – a landscape known personally and in detail by someone who has spent their life there. I don’t know if this is legitimately true and it evokes scenes from the author’s life, or if she is just that bloody good, and I don’t care – if you can’t tell the difference, what does it matter? But it is the richness in the details, the flowers on the gorse, the noise of the bees, that really cement it in the reader’s mind. They feel like the details one would focus on in the immediacy of the moment, rather than what would linger, and it roots each story into the mind as the crucial now. And that makes it nearly impossible to put the book down.
And then the characters. You watch them each grow and change, seen through their own eyes and others, sympathetic then distant then incomprehensible by turns. When you follow each one in their own story, you cannot help but love them… only to have it turned around in someone else’s tale, rendering them strange and difficult. You can’t pick a favourite really, since they’re all so endearing in their own ways, but May, who wants to be a violin master, would be mine if you forced me to. She’s told through the eyes of her father, and the story is sad and cruel and yet satisfying.
That mixture – sadness and nastiness and yet a satisfying end – is what makes this feel most strongly like a true modern interpretation of the fairy tale. It’s that sense of mystery rooted in the real, in a world that is horrible and unreal by turns, that makes it magical, but it sits alongside truly realistic characters, making it feel that much more immediate and true, immaterial and vivid all at once. It captures the essence of a fairy tale and retells it for a grown up reader, makes it matter all over again, and that is beautiful.
Likewise, it has a peculiar way of drawing together, so that as each story progresses, the world you are in feels smaller and smaller, the edges each defined by the previous tale, until finally, there is very little new, and yet everything is still wonderful. All the characters have been set out, all the places seen, all the secrets told, and here you are in the middle, knowing them all, but still wondering at them, just as the story starts to turn again – it’s a story of a generation of life in this strange village, and it ends with the feeling that it’s about to renew, bringing a new set of stories with new characters, the next generation… and yet that what it has told you is somehow timeless and permanent, and all of it will roll around again, the same in spirit if not in detail.
It is a genuinely mesmerising book, and one of the best written things I’ve read in the last year. For something so small, it does a lot of work, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves good writing and a mystery and magic that is somehow out of reach, to anyone who loves a cast of whole and real people. It is brilliant and beautiful and I love it, and I will absolutely be seeking out anything else Gilbert writes.