Jennifer Edgecombe reviews the new, Cornwall-centric short story collection from Lucy Wood.
In Lucy Wood’s new book, The Sing of the Shore, Cornwall isn’t explicitly named but the clues are there – gorse, tin lodes, mizzle. Thirteen short stories drift through the off-season, from one empty holiday accommodation to another, each presenting the idea that the rural idyll of Cornwall is, of course, just that: a romantic fantasy sold to holidaymakers. The reality is often tough: economic impoverishment in a remote, difficult landscape. Wood subverts the reader’s expectations from the start: in ‘Home Scar’, she refers to the sea as ‘cowshitty’ – a colour that Ivor’s dad recognises as ‘good fishing’. In Wood’s Cornwall, the sea is never blue but ‘washed of colour’, held back from the reader ‘somewhere in the distance’, the waves like ‘windows smashing’. There is a stoic thwartedness, of things not being ideal: ‘Damp gusts blow in like smoke before the fire’s got going properly’; ‘the blackberries up there are always sour’.
The story ‘Dreckly’ upholds this backdrop of unfulfillment by not only portraying the trials of the land, but also the pressures experienced by the young residing on it. After the holidays, a group of friends in their late twenties scour the empty coastline with metal detectors, searching for treasure amongst tourist detritus – the activity a result of the fruitless search for work in a winter that saw ‘people disappear’ and shifts ‘halve again’:
‘If we find it we could do something.’ I said.
‘We are doing something,’ Freya said.
I scuffed my foot in the sand. Something else. Don’t ask me what, exactly.
To do ‘something else’ is also a plea between friends in the story ‘Home Scar’. During the school holiday, ‘the week billowed and sagged around them, like a tent that might stay up, or might any moment collapse’. This tension between anticipation and anti-climax flows through Wood’s prose, particularly in her portrayal of young characters, all of whom are vivid, their frustrations bluntly and sometimes unexpectedly expressed within the narrative like short blows: last year Crystal ‘pushed over a teacher’; after blowing soapy bubbles for his baby, new dad Jay ‘hardly ever felt like smashing it all against the wall any more.’
In ‘The Sing of the Shore’, the narrative jumps between Bryce’s past and present. He is returning to his family home and campsite but becomes disorientated: ‘Nothing around here looked exactly as he remembered.’ He sees ‘a woman standing in the window, talking on a phone. He was about to wave then stopped, almost stumbling […]. It wasn’t his sister.’ The once familiar environment seems different to Bryce, and it is different: his sister has had to sell their house to keep the campsite financially afloat. This differing is a trope I recognise. In Cornwall, for me, past and present overlap. I visit my old haunts and discover my memories of them are erroneous, despite the daffodils lighting the route back ‘like torches’.
I lived in West Cornwall until I was 22. As a teenager, it was hard not to feel a sense of being ‘left behind’. With ‘upcountry’ – the rest of England – hours away on the train, the escape route to my future felt distant. Wood plays with this idea in ‘Dreckly’, where it is not only the summer visitors who leave Cornwall, but also the friendship group’s peers – although what has become of them remains ambiguous. Freya muses that ‘Letty finally made it into acting, […] some advert’. Her ‘success’ is downplayed; she was ‘wooden’.
The English word ‘directly’ became ‘dreckly’ in Cornwall, its meaning transforming to better represent the pace of things there: not ‘immediately’ but ‘at some point in the future’. In Cornwall, time appeared to have stopped. The last working tin mine, South Crofty, ground to a halt in 1998. The mining industry, which built and shaped the current terrain, now only remains as beauty spots for the gaze of sightseers. The landscape had to adapt (‘Another supermarket went up practically overnight’). South Crofty reopened in 2012 – as a museum. Perhaps Cornwall hadn’t stopped exactly, but, like the narrator in ‘Dreckly’, it was adrift: ‘He took me out in his boat and we just drifted for a long time’. Change, like the impressive new Heartlands museum at South Crofty, happens dreckly:
Sometimes, when I see the sand and rocks all bare like that, it looks like a building site: all brown and heaped up like it’s going to become something else, but it never does, does it.
It was such a pleasure reading Wood’s stories because they perfectly evoke the reality of what it is like to grow up in Cornwall, or at least what it was like for me. As she remarks on the Cornish accent, ‘You grow up with a language you think everyone knows: lumpy, crumbly, clean, hollow, walling up’; only since leaving have I begun to appreciate how unique Cornwall is. On returning now I fit somewhere in that awkward space between tourist and local, but one day, I hope, I will be ‘left behind’ there again.
The Sing of the Shore (4th Estate, hardback, 272 pages) is out now and available here.
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