Lucy Wood; Weathering
Bloomsbury Publishing, 304 pages, hardback
Review by Sue Brooks
This is a winter book and I have been reading it through the long winter afternoons. At one point, about a third of the way through when snow had been falling for two days on the house and the river, I looked up and white flakes were drifting past the window. My window. But for a moment I wasn’t sure. The resistance had passed and I was entangled – a word that occurs again and again – as the two women, mother and daughter, had become entangled, no matter how hard they tried. There you go they tell themselves, when they can’t think of anything else to say. There you go. But they don’t go anywhere. Things happen and they endure.
I knew where I was exactly. The old house down the narrow lane with the river at the bottom of the garden. Trees on the opposite bank, leafless in December, and the moor rising behind. Bodmin Moor probably: one of those small collections of houses with a shop selling newspapers and milk and a pub struggling to keep open. I didn’t want to get caught. It felt like stumbling into a fairy tale where the wood gets thicker and the daylight fades and an empty cottage appears. The door is locked and Ada and Pepper cannot find the key. Is the house haunted? Will they become spellbound? The wind is loud in the trees, Pepper can hear the deep glugging of the river, and it begins to rain. Hard.
I’m not sure where it changed, only that I began to sense the texture, the dense warp and weave and the sureness of the hand that was feeding in the patterns. The names for example which mould the characters perfectly. Pearl, the ghostly presence who could have been born in the river, and at the end returns to it. She rolled her own name around on her tongue, where it mixed with salty water, turning opaque and gleaming. And then she dropped it. Ada, as indistinct as the syllables, yet solid and unyielding in the centre. Reminiscent of another mother with a young child – Ada McGrath, the mute heroine of the film “ The Piano.” And Pepper, the six year old who knows what she dislikes, what she won’t do. She is fierce and angry. A great deal of weathering has taken place in her short life. She tipped out the balls of nutmeg and rolled them around her hand. Dug into her palm with the sharp black cloves. Three generations of women and two men. Tristan, Cornish Knight of the Round Table, and Frank, the free man. The man born to be free, and the first one to escape. A man, and also a heron whose photo cannot be taken, although it stands more silent and still than any other water bird. And so it builds up, layer upon layer, like silt in the river, and in one sense it could be anywhere, a house and river and three women, as in a fairy story, or an Arthurian romance, and in another it is rooted in the places Lucy Wood knows intimately, a particular river in Cornwall, or Devon perhaps, a particular house.
The imagery is striking. Time and again I rolled a phrase around to taste the flavour: Sallow days, like something left on a line too long, its colours rinsed out. Or He ate stoically, working his way through it like it was a job that needed doing. Not spectacular, not announcing themselves, and always fitting the mindset of the character being described. Small things noticed with care: she laughed then tried to hide it, her lips puckering like old fruit. With writing of such maturity it is difficult to believe it is a first novel.
The landscape is drawn with greater intensity. It asserts itself from the first page and there is no getting away from it. Lucy Wood’s lexicon for the river rivals that of the Inuit and Sami languages for snow. Over three months from December, when Ada and Pepper arrive at the empty house, she charts the river in all its moods and the elements in their fury. The qualities of rain, of snow, of frost and ice and more rain: the natural processes that break down rocks, soil and minerals and are known as weathering. Resistance is futile, and as the women come to understand this, cracks begin to form in their defences. Ada sees the brown marks on the carpet at the bottom of the stairs where her mother fell to her death and two sharp pains squeezed out of her chest, like notes out of an accordion. She gets lost with Pepper on the moor, and finds the right path, as familiar as an old face you don’t recognise until you get up close and see the scars, the crinkles, the way the bones slope. Pepper meets her grandmother for the first time and they have a conversation about, among other things, a camera and a heron. The cracks widen and deepen and change moves on apace.
The camera plays a significant role. Pearl discovers it and passes it on to Pepper as an inheritance. A telling metaphor for the writing. Indistinct snapshots, random images – a leaf, a broken window, a piece of lichen, and as the interest deepened, a sense of time slowing down measured in the river’s ripples rather than by clocks or mealtimes……the pattern of light, the specific way the water poured over a dipper’s back.
Pearl would become lost in the river. She would stand motionless as a heron in the water, waiting for the moment. For the invisibility…..and to notice things she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Pepper begins to do the same, and as the relationships come more and more into focus, the moment arrives. In a passage of exceptional clarity and beauty, Ada watches her daughter crouched on the riverbank holding the camera: keeping herself very still, but not rigid, not fraught, watching the heron. Ada sees the river as she has never seen it before. She remembers herself as a young child watching her mother bathe in the deep pool below the bridge.“Take it” she whispers, and Pepper presses the button.
And so it happens. Three women moving effortlessly between past and present, sharing memories like old snapshots laid one on top of the other. At home in the house beside the river with the moor rising behind.
This is a tale of great strength and subtlety. There is magic in it and transformation but it is natural magic that has made itself available to a writer who walks quietly and with intent. Anyone who recognises this, anyone who might feel they know what it means to be caught by the river, should read this book. Lucy Wood will take you much deeper.
Weathering – which is our book of the month – is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.