A Year of Marvellous Ways, by Sarah Winman - book review: Fanciful imagery and beautiful prose that ebbs and flows

Winman certainly has a way with imagery, a clever combination of the literal and the metaphorical

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The Independent Culture

A Year of Marvellous Ways begins on the bank of a Cornish creek in 1947 where 89-year-old Marvellous Ways lives alone, like a “limpet”: “Good for nothing except hanging on.” She’s waiting, but she doesn’t know what for, “because the image was incomplete”.   This absent something arrives in the form of Francis Drake, a young man only recently returned from the battlefields of France. He’s on an errand to deliver a letter to a grieving father from a fellow soldier who didn’t make it home, and although on the face of things Drake has been lucky, the traumas of his past run deep and he’s in dire need of Marvellous to coax him back to the land of the living.

She does this through the powers of storytelling; slowly spinning the tales of the three great loves of her life. The past intertwines with the present, both in the form of Marvellous’s recollections, and the slow piecing together of the decisions made and events transpired that have led to where she is today, not to mention episodes in Drake’s history, most poignantly his recent return to England and the upsetting few days he spent in London prior to journeying to Cornwall.

Although very much grounded in reality in that the fictional lives of her characters unfolded among the very real events of recent history, Winman’s bestselling debut When God Was a Rabbit was tinged with just the faintest hint of magical realism – it was up to the reader whether to take the talking rabbit God at face value or instead explain his powers of speech  away as the whimsy of a haunted child’s overactive imagination. But whereas then she didn’t linger for too long on these more fanciful aspects, she revels in them here in her second novel, and the entire narrative takes on the aspect of a fairytale, complete with a journey into the woods; characters with strange, winsome names and enchanted pasts (Marvellous tells the story of her mermaid mother, shot shortly after her daughter’s birth, mistaken for a seal frolicking in the water); and a gentle kind of magic is available to those in need: a young girl drops an egg white into a glass of water to see it take the form of the face of her one true love.

The fragmentation of the narrative does err on the side of disorientation, something that’s not helped by the lack of speech marks; up a creek without a paddle is the all too apt phrase that springs to mind. But once you’ve settled into the ebb and flow of Winman’s admittedly rather beautiful prose, it’s easy to be lulled along. A Year of Marvellous Ways isn’t without its tragedies, but there’s a more sentimental message here than in When God Was a Rabbit (the vein of family love that ran through that was coldly tempered by the horrors of child and domestic abuse, murder, and loss): love is “the only thing to have faith in” Marvellous tells Drake.

Winman certainly has a way with imagery though, a clever combination of the literal and the metaphorical: a woman who’s clad in the wrong footwear to scale the wall Drake’s built around his heart, “hers were far too sensible for a man like Drake”; or a bruise “inching acr oss” a heart.