It is said that the stones cannot be counted,
they move, they shift, they come and go
Rita could feel it in her toes; it was always the toes first with her. They were heavier and they ached and when she reached down to touch them they felt harder and colder than usual. She moved them around in bed but it didn’t take the edge off. The middle of each toe had already turned into stone and the weight of them reminded her of the marbles she and her brother used to play with – grannies, kings, cat’s eyes – so that she could almost hear the soft clicks the marbles made when they hit each other. The top layer of skin had started to dry out and soon it would harden like that brittle layer of sand that breaks and hardens on a beach. And then there was the first pang of craving for salt that she always got when this happened.
How long did she have? About ten hours. The whole thing usually took about ten hours. It was slow, but not slow enough that she couldn’t feel it if she concentrated; each skin layer seizing up and turning into stone from the inside out, a sort of tightening, a sort of ache, a sort of clicking as stone was added to stone, as if someone were building a house inside of her. (Countless Stones, page 20)
On Sunday I said that I was having a difficult time reading the stories in Lucy Wood’s book Diving Belles: And Other Stories. So much so I was unsure if I would be able to finish and I really didn’t know why I felt that way. After some time and reflection and after rereading a story in the beginning that I really liked, I decided to go on and I have to say I am really glad I did as some of my favorite stories were at the end. While I felt most of the stories do stand on their own, it is as a collection that you get a sense of the scope, the details, and the skill the author provides her work.
The stories are set in Cornwell and they very much evoke a sense of the place – the sea, the cliffs, the small towns, the moors, and the houses – small and weather-worn. Most of the stories have a surreal aspect to them; a old woman who descends in a diving bell to see her young husband who was lost at sea years ago, a nursing home for those with unusual familiars and even more unusual talents, a young woman living for the first time in the hot, close quarters of the city and haunted by a wrecker – some sort of Cornish ghost dripping sand and seaweed all over the apartment.
Upon reflection, it was the latter story that gave me pause. Most of Wood’s stories have a sense of melancholy to them. The melancholy ranges from having a slight sentimental twinge to an oppressing pallor which leaned heavily on my spirit like a thick, dank fog. It was that kind of melancholy that hit me in reading Lights in Other People’s Houses; I found the story depressing and suffocating as if the wrecker were in my own house lurking around corners and filling it with flotsam and sea water. I realized I had to let the story go before I could continue reading.
Lucy Wood writes beautifully weaving the folklore,myths and stories of Cornwall in and out of her stories with little people and wishing trees, house spirits and people who turn to stone, the scavengers of the shipwrecks, and details such as leaving a fish on the beach to keep your loved ones safe at sea. You can almost see the crashing of ocean, sense the tang of the salt air. Here she uses brief sentences to describe the habits of a lifetime and the psychology of a couple:
The man and woman glanced at each other once, shrugged. They weren’t holding hands. They didn’t walk next to each other; they left a gap, as if they were making room for someone else. The droll teller used to be able to see exactly who the lost person was, standing in the empty spaces people left for them. This time he hardly noticed (Some Drolls Are Like that and Some Are Like This, page 213)
She is an author who notices things and imagines things – such as wondering what the house spirits would think about in an empty house about the objects left, what it would feel like to turn to stone, how it feels to gain new perspective on your mother. She is very aware of houses and how they sit in their environment, how their inhabitants feel about comings and goings and about their houses themselves:
What her father said was that people leave places for more reasons that she could understand…people sometimes leave quickly, you wouldn’t understand . It didn’t sound right – why would they? It was evening, lights on and curtains open, and she suddenly pictured their house from the outside – small and fragile, the lights barely reaching into the dark, like a tiny boat in miles and miles of water. (Wisht, p. 195)
Lucy Wood certainly has a way to making the reader an inhabitant within the story – evident by my reaction to the story with the wrecker. My favorite passage appears in one of the later stories after a long build-up by the author to this single stunning image:
She looked and then saw two stars fall out of the sky; trailing a brief silver thread behind them. Then there were more stars moving, dropping like spiders. They faded slowly into the black sky like ink being absorbed into paper. It was as if the whole sky was dropping stiches, unraveling itself ready to fall and drape over them like a blanket. (203-204)
Diving Belles: And Other Stories is certainly worth reading. I found it well worth my while to take my time and figure out why I was having difficulty with the collection. Along with melancholy, the stories charm and depth and are well written. However, if the surreal doesn’t appeal to you or if atmosphere weighs heavily upon your soul, certain stories will not be to your taste.