A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman: The novel cure for horror of commercialism

Literary prescriptions for modern ailments

Ella Berthoud,Susan Elderkin
Friday 18 December 2015 18:49 GMT

Ailment Horror of commercialism

Cure A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

All of us sometimes revel in the thrill of shopping, be it tangible, cyber or vicarious. And we can all, equally, be appalled by the experience – particularly in the run-up to Christmas. If rampant commercialism fills you with horror, enter Sarah Winman's lyrical novel and escape into a world far removed from commerce: Cornwall, just after the Second World War.

Marvellous Ways – a name she acquired in her youth – is an 89-year-old woman who lives alone by a creek where she swims naked every day. The locals believe she has witchy powers that can heal or harm – and it is true that she is gifted with a kind of second sight. In her heyday she acted as an untrained midwife. Marvellous has had three great loves in her life, but none that lasted; and now the village is dying around her. So when, in 1947, ex-soldier Francis Drake, on a mission to deliver a letter to the father of a dead fellow soldier, turns up in her creek, close to starvation, Marvellous is pleased to take him in. She feels he is the man she's been waiting for.

Broken by the war and the recent loss of his sweetheart, he craves the stories that Marvellous shares, along with her healing soups. Reliving her own past, she shows him how to delight in the tiny things in life – the dew on the grass, the spider in the window of the boathouse. He begins to feel he can live again – and finally deliver the letter he has carried for three years. As people return to the village, lured by the smells of bread freshly baked by Peace, a child born under Marvel-lous's care, the simple pleasures described call not only to Francis, but to the reader. In her company, we appreciate in a way we never have before the magic of yeast, and of birdsong at dawn.

We enjoy the coming of the crabs, and the strange, white light of the moon while shucking cockleshells… Life is about experience, not your purchasing power.


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