Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Humans have never been an apex predator. Not for us the noble complacency of the lion. No, our intelligence is born of a low cunning and fear. The appeal of the folktale is that it reminds us of these old fears and the cunning magics we used to overcome them. Zoe Gilbert’s debut book, Folk, channels these ancient energies, focuses and enhances them. The results are captivating.
Folk, like any magical item, unsettles you even while it entices. The gorgeous dust jacket by David Mann (admittedly, the reason I first bought the book) seems, at a distance, like a William Morris print. Look closer, however, and you notice the blood spattering sparrow’s beaks, the bees in the roses and, considering the detailed foliage, a notable lack of green. Gilbert’s stories have the same effect; pastoral scenes with underlying threats, dangers by the hearth. Her prose too combines a capitating flair for linguistic ornament with short, punchy, brutal sentences.
Gilbert, in capturing the essence of the folktale, has structured the book as a series of overlapping stories. There is no overarching narrative in novelistic terms. Instead, by setting the book in the small island community of Neverness in some non-specific pre-modern time, Gilbert achieves a sense of continuity through the recurrence of characters, the passage of time, and the rituals which bind them all together. The book is structured as Neverness is structured.
Gilbert has a knack for conjuring believable rituals. The book opens and closes with the gorse maze game. The girls tie their names to arrows and fire them deep in the gorse. The boys shave their heads and dive in to get them, the deepest divers winning the dearest hearts. When a boy emerges with a girls arrow she kisses him on his bloody lips. The bloodier the better, is how the girls talk of it.
There is magic in Neverness too, of a sort. “Verlyn’s Blessings”, my favourite of the tales, is about a man born with a wing for an arm. One sees how he has adapted, weaving baskets as his fisherman brothers go to sea, and while his wife has him hide the arm, his son is proud of the feathered thumb he has inherited. Gilbert captures how a community deals with difference, and how it feels to be different. She emphasises the realism in magic realism; a refreshing approach in a genre still too much in the shadow of Angela Carter.
A theme runs through the book concerning the pleasures of the wilderness, of the dark and unrestrained. “The Water Bull Bride” embodies this attraction in an amphibious lover, the story “Turning” embodies it through shamanic visions. There are things we catch glimpses of, out of the corner of our eyes, which promise a rampant and devastating freedom. “Civilisation”, if it means anything, means turning away from these dangers. Folk, in its daring, holds up a mirror where, looking carefully, we can see them reflected.
There is a category of novel, hard to define, that includes Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness. They are novels about the conflict inside the soul of every person; a conflict between order and chaos, between freedom and dignity.
Critics of late have sought to purge the canon of these texts on account of their colonial implications. Folk, I would argue, demonstrates that such conflicts are real, they are everyday and they are important subjects for literature. By setting her tales on a remote island, Gilbert repositions these stories away from the colonial. That is perhaps what Neverness means: there are no tribes, there are no “Others”, we are doing these things to ourselves.
A final, and critically important thing to note about Folk, is its use of third person. Every novel I read that was published in 2017 was written in first person. Individually, each had its reasons, but collectively the effect was disconcerting. A novelist’s ability to evoke the third person, the objective observer outside the situation, demonstrates our medium’s capacity to depict the universal. By returning us to our folk roots, I hope that Zoe Gilbert will remind us of our duties in this matter. I hope this book becomes a bestseller.
Folk is a brilliant piece of fictionwork. One that promises to stick in the mind for years to come.
– Joe Darlington