Writer Judy Birkbeck reviews The Sing of the Shore, by Lucy Wood, published by 4th Estate, 2018.
Lucy Wood’s first collection of short stories, Diving Belles, centred around Cornish folklore and was peopled with house spirits, mermaids and so on. The Sing of the Shore is more earthy and tangible; it does not show the picture-postcard Cornwall of sandy coves, rugged cliffs and expansive sea views. Rather, we see the realities of growing up in a place full of empty houses, where people disappear and only the sound of the sea is left. “Winters are when people disappear. … Lifeguards pack their tents and dented surfboards and get on planes, following the sun like a flock of migrating birds.” A sense of decay and impoverishment and poignant lives permeates this haunting collection, which manages to be both mundane and otherworldly. Underground cables hum and the sinister dishes of a listening station “turn like flowers”. Bored children break into holiday cottages. “There’s weird food they’ve left behind back here,” one says.
In the title story, a brother and sister have sold their parents’ home and the sister lives in the caravan/office, but there are no bookings and the shower is cracked and full of gunk and dead spiders and yellow flakes of old soap. The brother is a drifter, and in the other stories lives are often transient: in Dreckly, the young feel left behind, and the family in By-the-Wind Sailors is driven from one home to another. The sea is ever present, but it is not nicefied: “cowshitty” is how one character describes it in Home Scar, and in the title story the siblings climb down into a cave under the cliff, where the sea booms, in search of something lost. In Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, Derelict, a couple who have retired to their perfect, orderly home become overwhelmed with the detritus brought in by the tide, which the woman tries to clear by taking it home. The uncanny creeps in in other ways too: in One Foot in Front of the Other, a woman’s path home is repeatedly blocked by a herd of cows, as well as hedges and brambles; in Dishes, a young father with a baby becomes paranoid, hearing voices in the empty house next door.
Pervading all the stories is a sense of place, which Wood deftly sums up in few words: “The roads … with clumps of grass down the middle and flanked by bulky hedges. Beyond them were ridged fields, pylons, a few barns with collapsed roofs, the wet wind dousing everything”; “the worn-down layers where the cliff used to be, before it had been whittled down to its bones”; “there’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth”.
There is great variety of style in this haunting collection, whether detached or personal, told in the second person or simply a series of vignettes of all those who have died in one year in ‘A Year of Buryings’, but all of the stories are vividly told.
Judy Birkbeck has had short stories published in many places. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books. Find out more about Judy: www.judybirkbeck.co.uk.