Fish Scales

Zoe Gilbert, Folk

Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.00, ISBN 9781408884393

reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

Against the recent tide of first-person narrators with a direct voice and contemporary worries comes a book interested in traditional folk stories, narrated in thick, unhurried prose. Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a set of interlocking short stories (which the publisher prefers to call a novel) based in a single location, ‘Neverness.’ This place is perhaps inspired by Inverness and the Isle of Man, somewhere northern at any rate, but it is an invention. So thoroughly has Gilbert created her world that a map is even included. The book takes place within the span of a few generations, and characters overlap in different stories, with different ages. Their concerns are mostly the same ones humans have had throughout history: how to stay warm, how to make parents proud, how to woo a girl, how to live with the right mixture of dark and light, earth and airiness, structure and spontaneity.

Gilbert’s ‘folk’ do seem to live in a more primitive way than most city dwellers, close to nature and the elements, and many of the key events take place outdoors. The tone may be naïve, but events often turn dark, with the same blend of innocence and cruelty that appears in so many fairy tales. (Are those the delicate speckles of an egg shell on the cover, or spattered drops of blood?) An emphasis on sensual description, the ‘pinch of cold’ at night, the endless rush and splash of a waterfall,’ odours of fish and ‘sun-smelling fur,’ lends the book a voluptuous quality. We are not in the realm of reason.

Reason is indeed not the motivation to read these stories. The thickness of the overlapping characters and luxuriant prose accompanies a corresponding thinness in the philosophical premises. We are dislocated from time and space, and things simply seem to happen. Gilbert’s compelling voice makes us believe her, even when her characters are born with wings, fall in love with water bulls, search for blankets of mist, fly their souls through the sky or shoot arrows into the forest, which if found can be exchanged for kisses.

Perhaps this requires a specific kind of reader willing to go along with these fantastical elements, as Gilbert does not adopt a Cortázar-style approach of leaving open a dual explanation, either natural or supernatural. Rather, she embarks on a full-fledged flight into the imagination. Magical things really are happening in Gilbert’s world, and they must be accepted as such. The lack of explanation is somewhat akin to the feeling in contemporary life that this is the way things have always been. There is a certain conservatism to this way of understanding; the reader is not expected to question the circumstances, and neither do Gilbert’s creations. They may feel confused or anxious or desirous, but they are not deeply critical. They may seek out a different life, but they never seek to truly rebel against the premises of their reality. They inhabit their circumstances from within; they do not seek to analyse them from without.

Even if Gilbert’s fictional individuals do not interrogate their imagined world, however, her very style does create a kind of ambiguity. The traditional folktale was meant to be spoken orally, but these fifteen stories are recounted in a third-person omniscient voice that is anything but oral, and indeed delights in the play of dense and difficult language. ‘Take a torch, the last to be lit, and follow the jostle of fat, spitting lights, as the men and women of Neverness spread out along the gorse edge,’ the first story requests. This is a beautiful line, almost incantatory, but it speaks to a certain constant flickering in the book between letting the reader into this world and keeping her on the outside, watching from behind the glass. We may take a torch, but we are not the men and women of Neverness.

Folk derives some of its inspiration from Greek mythological sources and traditional English tales, as expressed in titles such as ‘Prick Song,’ ‘Fishskin, Hareskin,’ ‘Water Bull Bride’ and ‘Long Have I Lain Beside the Water,’ and it possesses similarities to Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, to name two more recent books. The strange confection of folk and fantastical influences in Gilbert’s work can be further located within a longer tradition of rewriting folk tales. Even if enchanting events, supernatural elements and an interest in the relationships between people and nature provide a common substratum, however, there are many different ways to work with folk-based material, from the novels of Jean Giono rooted in the French Provence, to the gothic Danish tales of Isak Dinesen, to the linguistic explorations of the Aran Islands’ oral tradition by JM Synge, to the glimmering use of Irish folklore in poetry by WB Yeats. If a range might be imagined that stretches from stories interested in direct transcription of the lore of real places to those that conjure up new legends and geographies unpinned to a specific region, the book under review falls firmly to the right. 

‘Folk’ in its Anglo-Saxon or Germanic origins can refer to the customs of people grounded in a specific locale. This being so, one might well ask what is left of the folk in Gilbert’s title, since the village is imaginary. Gilbert seems to draw on another meaning of ‘folk,’ however, just as rich – that of the common consciousness of people in a community, which does not depend on place. The fact that her characters all believe in their reality is enough to gather them into the association required for a book, if not a nation.

Precisely because there is no real background world, Gilbert is compelled to invent at every step. The storytelling consists of conceptual ‘what-if’s and situational sketches in the form of anecdote. There is no real plot, though this does not really matter, as Gilbert’s strength is dialogue and description. Such means can at times seem excessively ornate, but perhaps this is unavoidable. In a known world, a minimal remark can express a deep truth about place and characters that everyone recognises. In contrast, when the reader does not know the world, there is no inherent complicity with reality, and to create it there is a certain temptation, as well as necessity, to layer on detail. By starting with the strangeness of an imaginary place, Gilbert must recur to excess. Using a thick palette knife to overlap colours and textures, she curdles her prose.

To be convincing in Gilbert’s reality, something new, unusual or fantastic must always be occurring; a constant humming tension produces new eccentricities and situations. Given the conservatism of the worldview we have mentioned, however, to assume that these eccentricities and capricious introductions will simply be accepted by not just the characters but also the reader may seem a stretch. Gilbert rightly senses that any too-blunt probing would destroy the delicacy of the inherited structure of her world, and so she refrains from specifics. Perhaps this is also why so many of her protagonists are children, who accept possibilities and revel in them.

How to create an invented reality that does not simply replicate the existing world as dystopia or create surreal nightmares of the cadavre exquis variety through superficial enumerations in freakish new varieties? Gilbert resolves the question through her deep dependence on existing structures, both the tropes of fairy and folk tales passed down from generation to generation and the traditional concerns of a small human community at the level of the drama. To reinvent or subvert the fairy tale, the simplest approach would likely be to start from the loam of the real world. Gilbert prefers to take the opposite path, beginning from fairy tales to return to deeply classical concerns. A timelessness suffuses the problems in the book and the traditional form in which they are put; distance from the city does not necessarily imply an edgy subculture. Families with secrets, unhappy parents, children getting older and discovering things long hidden: neverness could well exist in the heart of suburbia.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator. Her books include A Luminous History of the Palm, A Furious Oyster and Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age.