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light blue cover of Diving Belles featuring illustrations of a mermaid, crows, an old fashioned portable lamp and a large goldfish

If you’ve been anywhere near me in the last few weeks you will know I am beyond excited about ‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood. I think I have recommended it to every fantasy fan and every lit geek who has shown even a vague interest in the title. And every time I rec it I am like ‘There are too many word I need to use here’ and also ‘Must not appear scary, or oversell it’. We all know the disappointment of realising you’ve set everyone’s expectations way too high.

Recently Jenny was talking about her need for beautiful prose and in a roundabout way I sort of confessed to being a lover of the minimalist style. I do like prose made up of windy sentences that create a kind of intriguing, tangled forest of sentences each of which is made of clause upon clause. Give me Miéville, or even give a big Victorian classic and I will happily settle into that kind of thick, luscious prose like it is a big cosy sofa next to the fire. However I find that the emotional part of me is most consistently engaged by deliberately clear cut writing; the kind of sharp, crisp pared down sentences which still collect together into something delicate and intricate over the course of a book or story.

In ‘Diving Belles’, her debut short story collection, Lucy Wood uses a particular version of this kind of prose to maximum effect. She offers up many really simple sentences and these simple sentences often join up to form clear affecting images. These images are allowed and to stand for themselves, unembellished just for a moment, so the reader can really see them without any interference, for example:

’Imagine those lungs! Two massive, heaving slabs made up of mottled purple and white and red. They would look like slippery beds. They would loll around like skinned whales on the beach. And yet, what about the power of them? What about the weight and strength that would go behind each breath – the sheer greedy volumes of air that would circulate and bubble in them.’

There is great clarity and precision brought to these images, which often show small details or small feelings and the smallness of the thing being described with such care exposes the extra-ordinary in the ordinary1 without turning these images into something ‘terribly filigreed and dead’2 in an effort to reveal their true nature through elaborate description.

The cumulative effect of so many simple, yet rarely brusque, sentences is often the creation of a rhythm that feels calm and lulling and which makes the writing feel as if it is in rhythmically in sympathy with the quiet, reflective feeling of the natural landscapes and seascapes that it so often describes. Wood uses other elements I might associate with minimal prose, such as sentence fragments, sparingly which keeps the proses’ tone feeling soft and quietly simple rather than sharper and more edgily minimal. I do like a writer who can put softness into their writing as well as a power.

The stories in ‘Diving Belles’ also include ambiguity and unresolved details which intrigued me and hinted at a world beyond the particular moment the story captured. Careful, deliberate prose with a delicate touch and unanswered questions – oh really this is too many presents. I’d say it’s difficult to use unresolved elements; it’s terrible easy to end up with a story that feels like it masks a lack of depth with enigmatic vagueness. Wood mostly avoids turning her use of fragment and snapshot situations into handwavey tricks aimed at convincing the reader that an incomplete story is super deep just because of its incomplete nature. I thought there were a few exceptions, for example ‘The Wishing Tree’ ends with a maddening sense that the secrets being held back by the characters are really only kept secret because the story doesn’t have anything else to give to the reader, but overall a good collection for those who like short stories about snap shot moments of fuller lives to have meaning that goes beyond ‘secrets are secret and that is special’.

As I fell for this book pretty hard, I want to make sure that nothing gets in the way of anyone out there trying it, so I’d like to briefly discuss the marketing of this collection. Despite the mermaids on the cover, I feel like ‘Diving Belles’ is being marketed as lit-fic (the cover quotes are all from authors who are associated with lit-fic/ that nebulous magical realism sub-category). For any fantasy fans out there wondering whether the mermaids on the cover of are just a tease, or whether ‘Diving Belles’ is dabbling in a bit magical realism, let me help you out – this book is bursting with fantasy. A wide range of fantasy elements are included in this collection: mermaids, giants, transformations, a wild hunt, angry sea spirits, ghosts and witches all make appearances. Every story contains a fantasy element though some stories position the fantasy more centrally than others; the title story ‘Diving Belles’ is focused around mermaids and the second story in the collection, ‘Countless Stones’ is about a woman who turns into a standing stone, but in ‘The Wishing Tree’, the fantasy element is introduced and then the story moves away from it.

For me, Wood’s evocation of the ordinary side of life is just as interesting as the fantasy elements she includes. A long running textual ‘I know it when I see it’ obsession with me is how well writers manage to balance keeping the everyday solid and real, while putting it under a close focus, with making the ordinary actually interesting and drawing significance from the small. I can’t be doing with indulgence about the ephemeral nature of a plastic bag but I also don’t want writers to make the ordinary quite as flat as it can sometimes be (the use of deliberately dull descriptions to create a dull tone is not a writing technique I enjoy). ‘Diving Belles’ doesn’t stint on the mundane details of objects, or ignore the regular chores of its character’s lives, for example in ‘Countless Stones’ we hear about the main character’s bed clothes and their ‘bottle of hand soap that could be used without water and jump-leads small enough to fit into a handbag’. However, the details included are selected, pinned down and focused upon, so that they build up an evocatively textured picture of the small, individual lives of her characters. Although Wood’s fantasy stories may be grounded by the amount of normality she describes around the more outlandish supernatural stories, she doesn’t spell out every little action or risk overburdening the tales and turning them into a tiring catalogue of banal details. And the spare use of natural, commonplace dialogue to break in on rich images and inner thoughts, reminds the reader how ordinary our discussion can be in the real world. So, I think ‘Diving Belles’ makes a good stab at achieving the balance I’m searching for in its creation of the everyday, but I know for some its choice to make highlighted imagery out of the regular may be too ‘plastic bag in the wind’ for others.

As for the type of fantasy world this collection offers, many of the stories in ‘Diving Belles’ show perfectly ordinary worlds where regular people are aware of magic and accept its reality as a matter of course. In many cases the stories just quietly allude to the fact that whole towns know about the magic. In the title story, the reader has watched Iris, the main character, clean her house to hide traces of the sea which seems to regularly infiltrate her house by magic. The reader is also told that her friends pretend not to see if she misses anything, so they are set up for a world where magical interference must be hidden by a select few who believe in it. They may expect a world where most of the world assumes a missing husband is a drunk, or a cheat and that magical explanations for their absence come from deluded characters like in many fantasy stories where magic suddenly intrudes into the ordinary world. The lit-fic packaging may also contribute to ideas that ‘Diving Belles’ will be full of stories about a resistance to magic, or the refusal to accept magic but in the end Iris’ friends are the ones who suddenly bring her the solution to her missing husband (gift vouchers for the company that retrieves husbands who have been stolen by mer-people) showing their common awareness that there is very real supernatural magic in their lives.

The fact that wider society recognises and accepts the reality of magic without trying to remove it doesn’t mean that magic is a benign or unobtrusive force. In the title story magical mermaids have stolen Iris’ husbands and magic often brings about loss in this collection. In fact ‘Diving Belles’ feels like a collection loosely linked by central, broad themes of loss and the process of losing, as each story seems to ask the reader to witness a loss. In the title story ‘Diving Belles’, a woman has lost her husband to the sea and sets out on a search to find him. In ‘Beachcombing’, another woman lost her husband in a storm and now feels she is losing her vitality. In ‘Notes from the House Spirits’, the ghost narrators are always watching people go.

Losing is often associated with change in these stories. The ghosts see their house change and they feel unhappy about it. In ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ a young boy called Gog is watching the girl he secretly loves break away from him as they grow older. Perhaps the most obvious link between loss and change appears in ‘Blue Moon’, when an older woman sees a man she may love leave for the final time and morphs into a hare from the shock of his departure. But loss is also be associated with the opposing forces of stasis and change tearing people apart in these stories, as in ‘Diving Belles’ - on finding her husband and seeing that he hasn’t aged as she has Iris realises she doesn’t want to him to see her, or to take him back. Her husband is caught in time while she has moved on and this has made them lose each other. The ghosts in ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ are stuck to the house and that means they must watch all the distressing change around them. As I mentioned, in ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ Gog is not changing in the same way his friend Sunshine is and this is pulling them inevitably apart. In fact often in this collection the loss described is fatalistically inevitable, a product of time that most of us will just have to accept coming into contact with as we both stand still and change.

There aren’t really any overarching lessons about how to cope with loss or what loss means for those left behind to be drawn from this collection, despite its apparently themed nature. Instead, ‘Diving Belles’ offer instances of loss and asks the reader to observe them, to register them I suppose and to give each loss its importance. I’m not sure it has anything to say about making some kind of permanent vigil or cairn to acknowledge all loss; in the end ‘Diving Belles’ focus on loss is as specific as its textual use of descriptive details and each loss requires its own individual observance. The final story of the collection ‘Some Drolls are Like That and Some Are Like This’ attempts to bring the reader some overall closure with its suggestion that an ending can be a good new beginning, but I find that a little too abruptly, brought in right as the collection finishes, to convincingly apply to the whole collection.

Perhaps observing all the loss described in this collection and trying to absorb it is all that ‘Diving Belles’ requires of a reader, however passive that might sound – perhaps it doesn’t want to create a unifying theory about loss but rather show how special and specific each case is and how much diversity there can be to one theme. Perhaps it just wants to be passed from hand to hand so that more people can observe and absorb? And in that I’m happy to oblige. Ana, tag, you’re it!

My favourite stories

• I really enjoyed ‘Diving Belles’ which is built around an interesting fantasy idea that taps into some sea adventure nostalgia (old style diving equipment is attractive, right?). The main character gets help from a woman who runs diving bells down into the sea to search for husbands snatched by mer-people and I thought this story was so inventive. The detailed creation of Iris’ look, character and life drew me in. And I loved Demelza, the lady who runs the bell, because she is a tough talking, scrappy business owner.

• Although I thought ‘Countless Stones’ was a little too indulgent of the main character’s ex-husband I liked the fantasy idea of a town where people regularly turn into standing stones and then turn back. And I thought the way the story was paced, with incidents and weather constantly delaying the main character Rita from getting to the stones, increased the tension of the story without requiring the prose to become snappy. This story was much more what I want from the fantasy idea of a person turning into a statue than what I got in the disappointing ‘The Girl with Glass Feet’ by Ali Shaw.

• The fantasy conceit that ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ is based around (a story told by ghosts who watch the regular world) reminded me of Jon McGregor’s ‘Even the Dogs’ which I am a little obsessed with, so of course I loved it. This story had a bit more humour to it which made it distinct from McGregor’s story – differences often a good thing.

• I kind of want a whole novel about Gog, the giant’s son from ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’. The story shows that he is involved in three really interesting relationships and I’d love to see how those develop as he grows up. That would make a fab piece of YA.

• ‘Wisht’ probably made me the happy-saddest out of all the stories, because the little girl is losing a father who is still around. But then the ending was so beautiful and in the moment that it gave me hope for their relationship. Her father may be mysteriously leaving her behind and uninterested in caring for her, but she will also have small moments like this to treasure in amongst the pain it seems she’s heading for.

• Oh wait, can’t forget ‘The Light in Other People’s Houses’ which is about clearing house and ghosts in antique diving gear. Fun for anyone who likes their ghost stories more weird than creepy.

• And I was a big fan of ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Some Drolls are Like That and Some Are Like This’, which show supernatural creatures failing and changing with age. That’s an interesting idea that I’d like to see explored more in fantasy.


1 All credit for this expression goes to David Almond who I saw speak at Cambridge Wordfest.

2 ‘Radiance’ – Shaena Lambert (2008)

Have you reviewed this? Drop me a link to your review in the comments and I'll add your review to this post.

Date: 2013-04-22 08:01 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] smugglerana
Ohmy goodness, Jodie. I HELD this book in my hands this weekend and I was like, "this looks too litfic-not enough Fantasy for me" and I dind't get it. I will def get it now.

Date: 2013-04-22 09:44 pm (UTC)
phoenix: ink-and-watercolour drawing -- girl looking calmly over her shoulder (Default)
From: [personal profile] phoenix
Appealing praise, and it's cheap enough on Kindle as well (£3.99 GBP/$6 USD). I'm going to check this out; thanks for the recommendation.

Date: 2013-05-26 08:34 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Jodie! I thought I would just let you know that I caved and put in an order for this the minute I arrived home.

- Iris


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