Diving Belles, By Lucy Wood

Away with the fairies and mermen

Daneet Steffens
Sunday 22 January 2012 01:00

Cornwall's magic casts some pretty strong spells. The stories in Lucy Wood's debut collection have a distinctly otherworldly sensation to them – slightly surreal, steeped in enchantments and shimmering with an infusion of the area's folklore and landscape. This is a world in which fairies and spirits and bards circulate freely – and steal just as freely from modern-day television soaps – while humans are tethered by conditions of love, nostalgia and regret.

Cornwall's physical elements – the stones, the sea, the woods, the moors, the fields – constantly lay claim to the human inhabitants as they go about their daily lives. In "Countless Stones", a woman turns slowly to stone – toe by toe, limb by limb – as she helps her ex-boyfriend shop for a new house, and in "Of Mothers and Little People" a visiting daughter wonders at her mother's new, hallucinatory love interest. In "Lights in Other People's Houses", an old-fashioned shipwreck salvager invades a couple's flat, bringing sand, seawater and humidity with him, as well as a taste for daytime TV. Before long, tiny seashells are pouring out of bathroom taps instead of water. In Wood's title story, fishermen-husbands have an alternate life as seal-sleek mermen under the sea, and a woman named Demelza runs a thriving business using an ancient diving bell to help wives retrieve their men, if only temporarily.

Wood's writing ranges from thriller-film creepy to full-on mischievous. In the chilling "Notes From the House Spirits", watchful eyes appreciate the echoes and whistles of an empty house, mournfully noting abandoned items: "A rocking horse with a missing eye. A plastic skull. A suitcase stuffed full of receipts and discount vouchers. A roll of carpet. A cricket bat and a deflated football. Four nails and six drawing pins. A bunch of dry white flowers." But it's in the excellent "Blue Moon", the tale of a delightfully unconventional retirement home, that Wood's work shines brightest. In the Blue Moon Nursing Home, oversubscribed on a global level, inmates keep arrowroot, yarrow, mandrake in their rooms, along with potions that taste of homesickness. The staff have their hands full with odd housekeeping challenges – not to mention packs of familiars racing about – but the atmosphere is friendly and functional.

Throughout these stories, Wood strikes a sure and canny balance of worlds colliding and merging; her wry and gentle humour emphasises that fusion all the more.

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