In the tradition of Angela Carter, this luminous, spellbinding debut reinvents the stuff of myth.
Straying husbands lured into the sea by mermaids can be fetched back, for a fee. Trees can make wishes come true. Houses creak and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A mother, who seems alone and lonely, may be rubbing sore muscles or holding the hands of her invisible lover as he touches her neck. Phantom hounds roam the moors and, on a windy beach, a boy and his grandmother beat back despair with an old white door.
In these stories, the line between the real and the imagined is blurred as Lucy Wood takes us to Cornwall’s ancient coast, building on its rich storytelling history and recasting its myths in thoroughly contemporary ways. Calling forth the fantastic and fantastical, she mines these legends for that bit of magic remaining in all our lives—if only we can let ourselves see it.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
LUCY WOOD grew up in Cornwall and attended Exeter University, where she completed a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Cornwall.
Read an Excerpt
Iris crossed her brittle ankles and folded her hands in her lap as the diving bell creaked and juddered towards the sea. At first, she could hear Demelza shouting and cursing as she cranked the winch, but as the bell was cantilevered away from the deck her voice was lost in the wind. Cold air rushed through the open bottom of the bell, bringing with it the rusty smell of The Matriarch’s liver-spotted flanks and the brackish damp of seaweed. The bench Iris was sitting on was narrow and every time the diving bell rocked she pressed against the footrest to steady herself. She kept imagining that she was inside a church bell and that she was the clapper about to ring out loudly into the water, announcing something. She fixed her eyes on the small window and didn’t look down. There was no floor beneath her feet, just a wide open gap, and the sea peaked and spat. She lurched downwards slowly, metres away from the side of the trawler, where a layer of barnacles and mussels clung on like the survivors of a shipwreck.
She fretted with her new dress and her borrowed shoes. She tried to smooth her white hair, which turned wiry when it was close to water. The wooden bench was digging into her and the wind was rushing up her legs, snagging at the dress and exposing the map of her veins. She’d forgotten tights; she always wore trousers and knew it was a mistake to wear a dress. She’d let herself get talked into it, but had chosen brown, a small victory. She gathered the skirt up and sat on it. If this was going to be the first time she saw her husband in forty-eight years she didn’t want to draw attention to the state of her legs. ‘You’ve got to be heartbreaking as hell,’ Demelza advised her customers, pointing at them with her cigarette. ‘Because you’ve got a lot of competition down there.’
Salt and spray leapt up to meet the bell as it slapped into the sea. Cold, dark water surged upwards. Iris lifted her feet, waiting for the air pressure in the bell to level off the water underneath the footrest. She didn’t want anything oily or foamy to stain Annie’s shoes. She went through a checklist – Vanish, cream cleaner, a bit of bicarb – something would get it out but it would be a fuss. She pulled her cardigan sleeves down and straightened the life-jacket. Thousands of bubbles forced themselves up the sides of the diving bell, rolling over the window like marbles. She peered out but couldn’t see anything beyond the disturbed water.
As she was lowered further the sea calmed and stilled. Everything was silent. She put her feet back down and looked into the disc of water below them, which was flat and thick and barely rippled. She could be looking at a lino or slate floor rather than a gap that opened into all those airless fathoms. A smudged grey shape floated past. The diving bell jolted and tipped, then righted itself and sank lower through the water.
Iris held her handbag against her chest and tried not to breathe too quickly. She had about two hours’ worth of oxygen but if she panicked or became over-excited she would use it up more quickly. Her fingers laced and unlaced. ‘I don’t want to have to haul you back up here like a limp fish,’ Demelza had told her each time she’d gone down in the bell. ‘Don’t go thinking you’re an expert or anything. One pull on the cord to stop, another to start again. Two tugs for the net and three to come back up. Got it?’ Iris had written the instructions down the first time in her thin, messy writing and put them in her bag along with tissues and mints, just in case. The pull-cord was threaded through a tube that ran alongside the chain attaching the bell to the trawler. Demelza tied her end of it to a cymbal that she’d rigged on to a tripod, so that it crashed loudly whenever someone pulled on it. The other end of the cord drooped down and brushed roughly against the top of Iris’s head.
She couldn’t see much out of the window; it all looked grey and endless, as if she were moving through fog rather than water. The diving bell dropped down slowly, slower, and then stopped moving altogether. The chain slackened and for a second it seemed as though the bell had been cut off and was about to float away. Then the chain straightened out and Iris rocked sideways, caught between the tension above and the bell’s heavy lead rim below. She hung suspended in the mid-depths of the sea. This had happened on her second dive as well. Demelza had suddenly stopped winching, locked the handle and gone to check over her co-ordinates one last time. She wouldn’t allow the diving bell to land even a foot off the target she’d set herself.
The bell swayed. Iris sat very still and tried not to imagine the weight of the water pressing in. She took a couple of rattling breaths. It was like those moments when she woke up in the middle of the night, breathless and alone, reaching across the bed and finding nothing but a heap of night-chilled pillows. She just needed to relax and wait, relax and wait. She took out a mint and crunched down hard, the grainy sugar digging into her back teeth.
After a few moments Demelza started winching again and Iris loosened her shoulders, glad to be on the move. Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.
Demelza thought that this would be a good place to trawl. She’d sent Iris down to the same spot already. ‘Sooner or later,’ she said, ‘they all come back. They stay local, you see. They might go gallivanting off for a while, but they always come back to the same spot. They’re nostalgic bastards, sentimental as hell. That makes them stupid. Not like us though, eh?’ she added, yanking Iris’s life-jacket straps tighter.
A cuckoo wrasse weaved in and out of the ship’s bones. Cuttlefish mooned about like lost old men. Iris spat on her glasses, wiped them on her cardigan, hooked them over her ears, and waited.
Over the years, she had tried to banish as many lonely moments as possible. She kept busy. She took as many shifts as she could at the hotel, and then when that stopped she became addicted to car boot sales – travelling round to different ones at the weekends, sifting through chipped plates and dolls and candelabra, never buying anything, just sifting through. She joined a pen pal company and started writing to a man in Orkney; she liked hearing about the sudden weather and the seals hauled out on the beach, his bus and his paintings. ‘I am fine as always,’ she would write, but stopped when he began to send dark, tormented paintings, faces almost hidden under black and red.
She knew how to keep busy most of the day and, over time, her body learned to shut down and nap during the blank gap straight after lunch. It worked almost every time, although once, unable to sleep and sick of the quiet humming of the freezer – worse than silence she often thought – she turned it off and let the food melt and drip on the floor. Later, regretting the waste, she’d spent hours cooking, turning it into pies and casseroles and refreezing it for another day.
She ate in front of films she borrowed from the library. She watched anything she could get her hands on. It was when the final credits rolled, though, when the music had stopped and the tape rewound, that her mind became treacherous and leapt towards the things she tried not to think about during the day. That was when she lay back in the chair – kicking and jolting between wakefulness and sleep as if she were thrashing about in shallow water – and let her husband swim back into the house.
Then, she relived the morning when she had woken to the smell of salt and damp and found a tiny fish in its death throes on the pillow next to her. There was only a lukewarm indent in the mattress where her husband should have been. She swung her legs out of bed and followed a trail of sand down the stairs, through the kitchen and towards the door. Her heart thumped in the soles of her bare feet. The door was open. Two green crabs high-stepped across the slates. Bladderwrack festooned the kitchen, and here and there, on the fridge, on the kettle, anemones bloomed, fat and dark as hearts. It took her all day to scrub and bleach and mop the house back into shape. By the time she’d finished he could have been anywhere. She didn’t phone the police; no one ever phoned the police. No one was reported missing.
Despite the bleach, the smell lingered in cupboards and corners. Every so often, an anemone would appear overnight; she would find a translucent shrimp darting around inside an empty milk bottle. Sometimes, all the water in the house turned into brine and she lugged huge bottles of water home from the supermarket. The silence waxed and waned. Life bedded itself down again like a hermit crab in a bigger, emptier shell.
Table of Contents
Diving Belles 1
Countless Stones 20
Of Mothers and Little People 39
Lights in Other People’s Houses 54
The Giant’s Boneyard 90
Notes from the House Spirits 130
The Wishing Tree 147
Blue Moon 170
Some Drolls Are Like That and Some Are Like This 205
What People are Saying About This
"Lucy Wood is a sorceress. These stories unfold in a dreamy marine light, one that reveals the miraculous in the everyday. Diving Belles is a perfect name for this debut: It is guaranteed to enrapture a reader, and you'll want to come up slowly from its depths."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
“Diving Belles is a lovely, absorbing collection of tales, animated by Lucy Wood's remarkable gift for evoking Cornwall as both a physical and mythic place. She is writing out of a rich tradition yet making it utterly her own.”
—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles and Madeleine Is Sleeping
"Each year, book blurbs tell you that a thousand new writers have fresh, distinctive voices. But fresh, distinctive voices are actually very rare. Lucy Wood has one."
—Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White
"Lucy Wood has an intensity and clarity of expression, deeply rooted in a sense of place. Her stories have a purity and strength, and an underlying human warmth; they resonate in the mind."
—Philip Hensher, author of The Northern Clemency
"These stories are brilliantly uncanny: not because of the ghosts and giants and talking birds which haunt their margins, but because of what those unsettling presences mean for the very human characters at their centre ... A startling, and startlingly good, debut."
—Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
"These are stories from the places where magic and reality meet. It is as if the Cornish moors and coasts have whispered secrets into Lucy Wood’s ears and, in response, she has fashioned exquisite tales of mystery and humanity. In her prose, the fabulous moves across the everyday like the surf moving over the shore, shifting it in subtle measures, leaving it altered in its wake."
—Ali Shaw, author of The Girl with Glass Feet
"Wood captures something fresh, fantastical and eloquent...These stories express a distinctive voice and a gently beguiling imagination."
"Whimsical...Lovers of fairy tales and Celtic lore will take pleasure in immersing themselves in the rich, magical world Wood’s tales inhabit."
"Aching and mystical...These are distinctively grown-up fairy tales that re-create a sense of wonder and imagination without the moral endings of their childhood counterparts, but, like them, linger in the imagination."
“Magical and bewitching tales.”
“Wood’s finely wrought collection has touches of a benign Angela Carter and recalls the playful yet political transmogrifications of Atwood and Byatt ... Dreamily nuanced.”
"These tales are soaked in the magic and folklore of the place—but the magic is often an expression of inexpressible human emotion…Wood’s imagination is extraordinary; she has an instinct for the inner meanings of myths that echoes the great Angela Carter. Superb."
—The Times (UK)
"A vibrant new voice ... Why read it: for her distinctive voice and sense of place."
—Tatler, "Top Titles" (UK)
"Llovely and intriguing ... Wood pulls off a careful balancing act between fantasy and reality, folkloric past and prosaic present...Winsome, quirky, and sometimes enchanting, Wood’s stories seem to fish about in rock pools of imagination... Her gift… is for conjuring up gentle suspensions of disbelief."
—The Sunday Times (UK)
"Cornish folklore for the modern day, done in a beautiful, spooky way."
—Harper’s Bazaar (UK)
"This bewitching short story collection draws its power from a deft blend of Cornish folklore and everyday contemporary cares. Centered mostly around women—young women, old women, women becalmed somewhere in between—magic encroaches upon their narratives as slowly but surely as the incoming tide, so that even the most outlandish goings-on come to seem natural."
—Daily Mail (UK)
"A winning combination of spooky mystery and toast-and-tea coziness, with much warmth and tenderness."
—Metro (UK), 4/5 stars
"Cornwall’s magic casts some pretty strong spells. The stories in Lucy Wood’s debut collection have a distinctly otherworldly sensation to them—slightly surreal, steeped in enchantments and shimmering with an infusion of the area’s folklore and landscape… Wood strikes a sure and canny balance of worlds colliding and merging; her wry and gentle humor emphasizes that fusion all the more."
—Independent on Sunday (UK)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
¿Diving Belles¿ is the first book by Wood, but it doesn¿t seem like it. She writes with a maturity that is rare in a new author. These short stories are set in her native Cornwall, and the sea plays a part in some of the tales. A long dead ship wrecker takes up residence in a young couple¿s house, bringing salt and sand and shells in with him. A woman deals with her guilt over her husband¿s and son¿s deaths by giving up most everything and living in a cave on the shore. Husbands leave home to become mermen. Not all the stories are of the sea, though, but they all deal with the paranormal world- but with the most everyday manner. We see the inhabitants of a house through the eyes of the house itself. An assisted living home specializes in magical beings. An unimaginably old droll teller (a Cornish wandering story teller) finds himself forgetting the historical things that have happened in the town even though he personally saw them. I¿ve seen some reviewers likening Wood to Angela Carter, but I disagree. Carter¿s work frequently had a bloody mindedness to it that Wood¿s lacks. I¿d say she was most like Alice Hoffman, but, really, she is not a copy of anyone. Highly recommended for anyone who likes some surrealism and magical realism with their literary fiction.
This book, though studious and requires a bit of research, is marvelous. Based on Cornish folklore, each tale is spun with modern flavor and most leave the end to be decided by the reader. I found each one fascinating and enthralling. As Karen Russell blurbs on the book's cover, "Lucy Wood is a sorceress."
This book sounded like it would be great as I love quirky short stories with a bit of fantasy/fairytale/myth in them. The author does have a nice descriptive writing style. However, the first 4 (actually I didn't finish the 4th one) stories were so painfully boring and a couple of the endings were really disappointing. I do not recommend this book.