Blog Tour: Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize).
This is not at all what he thought Gertie Quick would turn out to be either, who never makes a squeak on the school bench, and what’s more, she has just called him stupid, twice.
(Folk by Zoe Gilbert. P37.)
Every year and every generation, the same traditions are observed on the island of Neverness. Boys run through the gorse hunting for arrows fired by girls to determine their future partner. A boy dressed in ox-skin waits behind the waterfall to answer questions girls have on love and marriage. Every winter the tale of Jack Frost is told. Lives are lived in accordance with nature and folklore.
Characters recur and age, their relationships with each other woven together in a web of history and love.
A collection of short stories which come together to show how myths and stories represent a deeper truth inside ourselves.
A small island ruled by tradition and steeped in its own history. This collection of short stories, which are as dark and quietly gory as the best of fairytales, shows us a place which is both unfamiliar and yet startlingly like our own country. Inhospitable, inward-facing and dictated by the outcome of its own ancient rituals.
The stories are separate and yet tied together by a cast of characters and a set of locations and rituals which recur across the collection. It is neither novel nor a traditional book of stories, but something which plays with form to great effect. By introducing us to the customs of Neverness, Zoe Gilbert paints a picture of one generation and how it fares across time.
As a real folkie, I was keen to read this and I fell in love with the language. This is a land of gorse tunnels and ox-hide, fish scale and hare skin and wattle and daub. It is like getting to know England not by its pop culture or city life but by taking a walk along the hedgerows.
My favourite story was The Neverness Ox-Man where young Harkley Oxley takes his turn at the family tradition of dressing in an ox hide and hiding behind the waterfall to answer questions about love. It is his role hide his true nature from the girls, but he too is unaware of exactly what the girls on the other side of the waterfall are like.
The stories may be whimsical, even fantastical, but they stop short of being straight fantasy. They paint a portrait of past lives and past ways of life, and much of their commentary on the way women have struggled as a result of social structure is astute. Fishskin, Hareskin, for example, shows a woman in the depths of postpartum depression caught between being scolded by her husband and by her father. She wraps her baby in a hareskin, the only remains of the wild and wonderful animals she had felt an affinity with as a girl. Her action shows both her desperation for the baby to lead a different life and the futility of it when the hare has already been skinned by a man.
A striking and unusual collection which lingers in the mind like the best of stories – a word here, an image there, until it demands to be reread and looked at in a different light. If you love old stories, wild spaces or beautiful language look no further. It’ll inspire you if nothing else to ramble through some outdoor spaces.
Read the International Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and follow the blog tour:
Thanks to Midas PR for gifting my copy of Folk as part of a promotional blog tour.