[The following contains spoilers.]
Lucy Wood’s Weathering is both a debut novel and that difficult second book. I approached it with a hard heart, assuming that Wood’s creativity would have been exhausted by all the pageantry of her earlier collection of short fiction Diving Belles (2012). I was proved right and wrong: Weathering reuses many of the same motifs and narrative tactics from Diving Belles, but the composition is this time radically more ambitious. The novel is to some extent a retelling of Wood’s prior story “Lights in Other People’s Houses” (both portray watery ghosts who haunt stacks of left-behind parental possessions). Weathering is naturally less of a jumble than Diving Belles, but the freshness of the first book, the sense that it might have concocted some new aesthetic all of its own, is still at the forefront of the second.
Unfortunately, the various attempts to promote Weathering have struggled to communicate how exhilarating it is. For this reason, readers with the sensibility to appreciate the book might not make it a priority. The author herself terms Weathering a “magic realist ghost story” and if there’s anything that will cause a stampede away from a new novel, it’s the words “magic realist.” The Independent likens Wood to Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, which may be kindly meant, though these authors’ postmodern feminism is one of those items like quinoa which is somehow fashionable without being in any way popular. For the blogger Fleur in her World, Weathering is “a book that speaks of mothers and daughters, of memories and ghosts, of the way people and places can hold us and form us, and of other things – fundamental things – that I can’t quite put into words.” It’s precisely this sort of writing that I want to avoid when discussing Weathering.
Any attempt to assert that Weathering is an exhilarating novel has to deal with an author who appears to be congenitally predisposed against drama. Moments of drama are raised only to be gently quashed, so that reading this novel is in effect a process of being constantly reassured and calmed. One anguished chapter ends with the story’s adult heroine, Ada, making fried bread. In another, Ada’s daughter Pepper runs away from home and Ada receives a ghostly warning, but this foray into conventional melodrama is smoothed over almost before you are aware of it.
Weathering is a highly personable book; there is a cast of pleasant characters and Wood regularly finds room in her story for gentle but enjoyable jokes. Benign ghosts are, of course, always a disappointment, and we might be frustrated by Wood’s fair-to-middling supernaturalism, particularly since she exhibits the necessary knowhow to excel at horror. Ada’s first trip to her local shop is as cold and skilfully nervy as a visit to a small town in a Shirley Jackson novel. The magnificent, oppressive consciousness of the house in Weathering, and the overwrought descriptions of all its detailed glowing life, bear a striking resemblance to the portrayal of Hill House in Jackson’s most famous ghost story. There are sudden cold spots, as when the senile Pearl “had tried to put on a chair as a jacket. The memory jumped out at her like a slap in the face.” We are teased with spookiness when Pepper’s mother ostensibly disappears during a game of hide-and-seek. But Wood’s instinct is always to promptly allay the horror – it’s simply too dramatic or vulgar for her aesthetic.
Perhaps it is that Jackson was an American author and that Wood is very consciously an English one.
This novel is so peaceful that even when it’s sliding into moments which should be, by convention, notably happy, such as a family Christmas, Wood whispers the same calming spell:
Her mother said it was a lovely thing. She got her keys and threaded them onto the key ring. But she didn’t say it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. And she didn’t say that she would keep it forever. Not like Pepper had imagined…
Any implied comparison between Weathering and Wuthering Heights is presumably sarcastic. The plodding lack of drama in Weathering is the very antithesis of the wrangling in Emily Bronte’s novel.
Neither is the novel’s prose greatly exhilarating, and in fact your ability to appreciate Weathering will depend upon how patient you are with its prose. So much of this novel is its prose. It’s never prolix and it’s generally written with superb control, but there’s rarely any urgency to it. A lot of it is rather like those moments beside a river when you find yourself staring into the moving water, absorbed in its intense nothingness and with the world suspended. Throughout this novel, there are constant different descriptions of water and weather. Ada likes reading recipes because of the steady way in which they list instructions. The ongoing commentary upon her riverside home soon acquires the gentle momentum of recipes, in laying out one precise description after another.
You’ll have to not just bear with this prose, but love it, unconditionally and for itself. The steady, calming influence of the prose further subdues a narrative which is already actively anti-dramatic. Why, therefore, do I find Weathering such an exhilarating novel? It’s in part because a book which is so coolly undramatic, almost in a spirit of disobedience, cannot be anything other than massively stylish. It’s also because Weathering, in its own whimsical way, is minded to reconcile two impossible things: the golden dreamland of fairytales and a scrupulous, cogently wrought realism. The normally sluggish tides of folklore and realism thus meet and the result is a quickening whirlpool.
Weathering avoids the mistakes which are practically native to postmodern fairytales. Allegory, the yuckiest toxin amongst all literary ingredients, has not been added, but we are still missing the organic solidity of true realism. There is something faintly spurious mixed into it all. You become conscious of an ornateness beneath the surface, so that Weathering begins to function like a detective novel. For example, it transpires that the name of Pearl’s lover Frank is also the call of her favourite bird, the heron. The telling of her story will involve the connecting of little clicks such as this.
Pearl’s character becomes a site to negotiate the exact relationship between realism and supernaturalism. She reappears after her ashes have been scattered on the river, but she seems unremarkable as a ghost because she had haunted the house in exactly the same fashion when she was alive. So unremarkable, in fact, that we might wonder uneasily whether there was not some error at the crematorium (her ashes are delivered in a box which reads “beloved pet”). Perhaps the senile Pearl is still living in her local river and nobody has had the time to clear up the mistake. The humorous lack of drama with which Ada greets her mother’s return tilts the realism out of balance, so that Weathering starts to resemble Wilde’s Canterville Ghost.
Like a fairytale, Pearl’s story is set nowhere in time or on the map. The house, river, pub, and village remain unnamed and generic. Wood is based in Devon, but there’s nothing to say that the moors in Weathering are not Yorkshire moors. The internet and smartphones of modern life are conspicuously absent, but there’s enough modernity in evidence to mean that this is not a historical novel. Pearl and Pepper’s camera requires “film,” but their house is lacking in a darkroom. The 1990s impatience of waiting weeks to be reminded of what you had photographed is never alluded to. When Val wishes she had “looked up” information on a computer, this pushes us towards how we use the internet today. Maybe this story can be feasibly dated to about ten years ago, but it’s surely a faux pas to make such an identification.
You might predict that some trace of Pearl could be found within the folklore of Devon and Cornwall, of which Wood is a student. Pearl certainly sounds like the sort of thing that you’d find in folklore: a water spirit who haunts a particular lonely stretch of the river. As I’ve argued when reviewing Diving Belles, however, a knowledge of folklore isn’t necessary to interpreting Wood’s fiction. Weathering is set in a world in which gossip about the local water spirit is no longer common culture. Indeed, all recollection of Pearl is switched off once Ada is walking amongst the folk.
Beneath the flimsy tropes of folk storytelling is an apparent base of firm realism. Pointlessly but stubbornly set in her ways, Pearl is the kind of character who rarely materialises in novels. She would probably classify a novel as something metropolitan and inexplicable. Her life is as devoid of drama as the English landscape is of dangerous wild animals. Its tragedy is still hugely and richly hopeless. She is adamantly housebound, viewing the outside world as “vast and difficult; much easier to stay put, there was more than enough here that she had to do.” Of course, Wood might inhabit this character so well in having led the naturally housebound life of an author.
Realism in Weathering is sometimes threatened, but it’s never weakened. It’s fascinating to observe the skill with which Wood juggles the strengths and defects of her writing, to get the most out of the former and obscure the latter.
Male characters trot about as distantly as livestock. Tristan is dim and smouldering like a horse; Luke is kindly but insincere, as unpredictable as a donkey that occasionally bites. Even Frank escapes from this novel without being condemned. His hapless, unremarkable cruelty is, it seems, a fact of life, just as animals come with their own fund of mechanical heartlessness. We may be on the verge of concluding that Wood cannot write about men, but this potential defect actually tightens the perspective of a setting in which women and girls band together. Wood otherwise smirks over her men, with her eyes gleaming. Tristan has the heels of his socks missing; Robbie has “the heels halfway down the soles of his feet.” They are men who need to pull their socks up.
It’s the same when Pepper enters her kitchen, looks down at the sink and walks over to put her fingers into it. She later crosses a room to close an open window. It seems that something has been overlooked in the writing: can a “small” six-year-old really be this big or confident on their feet? Yet this apparent weakness is also dissolved in the stirring. Pepper’s unreal qualities remind us of the strange liquid way that the personalities of her, her mother, and her grandmother seem to blend into each other throughout this watery book.
As with so much of Weathering, Pepper’s story is hardly original, but the telling of it is. Her character is often startlingly realistic. She is not cute or smug; she does not bring a child’s innate common sense to the messy adult world as Roald Dahl might have her do. Wood goes to considerable lengths to bring us the authentic squirming tiresomeness of a small child. Pepper is spoilt and self-pitying, but she also gets a fair hearing. We get a vivid impression of how slow and boring the adult world must be when viewed through her eyes.
This book is frequently written with a child’s eye for detail, or a mother’s eye for the details of her child’s world. Wood is as fascinated by Pepper as Plato was by Socrates. She dotes over Pepper, constantly watching her and reporting every tiny scrap of news. We are with Pepper when she finds a lone strawberry in a winter garden and eats it out of curiosity; we watch her digging a stick into the riverbank as if “prising open a huge lid.” Things that adults define as trivia are usually awesomely significant and memorable to children, and Weathering is so authentic because it adopts this trivia as a working currency. Childhood memories have been mined and the most priceless, rarest nuggets extracted, to shine just as they did in childhood.
Ada, however, becomes conscious that her own childhood memories are more mythological than real. The transformation is as unnerving as that of fairy gold:
There was the yellow mixing bowl; she ran her hand around the edge but it felt strange, the pattern indented rather than raised like she remembered. And when she picked up the green vase her mother used to cram wild daffodils in, it was plastic, not glass.
Pepper’s childhood is a bit of a fairytale. It seems too precious, too perfect, and I cannot imagine children these days, who mostly inhabit an online phantasmagoria, giving much credit to a winter strawberry. Pepper’s childhood often catches the golden light of a grandmother’s hand-me-down storybooks. “Her mother had sneezed twice – eat stew, eat stew, it sounded like she was saying,” could be a sentence written by Beatrix Potter or Enid Blyton. Pepper’s distraction remains pointedly unmedicalised – she is merely the traditional tearaway – and she will be eventually tamed by some thoughtful schoolteachers, in the good old-fashioned way.
Wood runs the risk of inadvertently emerging as a literary ambassador for UKIP, offering the nostalgic allure of children running wild without any “health and safety” and elderly people going mad without incurring all of the state’s interventions. You can picture Nigel Farage riding into this valley on a white horse, pausing to set up his tent under some oak trees, parleying with his knights and content that all is right with the world.
Realism is clearly not the whole story. As in a folk tale, the moral is plain to see: Ada should become rooted but not housebound, she should make a home for herself but not become set in her ways. Her own mother did not have the strength of character to achieve this. Pearl’s love of nature is simultaneously a disgust at society, and this aversion somehow manifests a cursed house which drowns people’s lives. There’s an element of the Flying Dutchman to this squally house. Luke, with his tall tales of a sailor past, probably spends so much time here because it’s like being on deck in the middle of the North Atlantic. The house’s cat is called “Captain.”
Ada becomes a triumphant Supermum, cooking meals for a whole community of bedraggled men. She had previously freed herself from the house, but this freedom is still distrusted. She opines that, “It’s just too much work… And too isolated, too hard to get around.” Her moral struggle is largely to be reconciled with the inconvenience of the olden days.
The moral is, in other words, unrealistic. The spivvy Ray (note the enlightenment in his name) is potentially the voice of reason: “Been thinking of moving into town myself. I know the benefits: can walk everywhere, pick up food when you like. You fancy a pear and you can just go and get a pear.” With this pear-shaped logic, at odds as it is with Pear-l’s wisdom, Ray appears to trade Eden for fruit. There’s still enough realism in this novel for us to doubt whether Ada has made the right choice. Her lover Tristan is so remote that he comes virtually labelled as the next Frank; Pepper is surely programmed to replicate Ada’s teenaged escapism. Is the curse of this house still waiting beneath the new paint?