Folk, a bewitching debut novel from Zoe Gilbert, 2014 winner of the UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
When I was twelve, I sought out the kind of fiction that led me down magical paths, places where powerful incantations held sway in mysterious other-worldly planes. In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward the kind of writing that teaches me something new or challenges my sense of what literature should be. Fantasy fiction hasn’t been my go-to. Yet, I was easily caught in the dark net cast by Zoe Gilbert, a PhD student of mentor Alison MacLeod in South-East London, and 2014 winner of UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
This unique award is judged anonymously, with the names of the competing authors withheld throughout the process. Gilbert’s short story Fishskin, Hareskin received the highest number of public votes and is now one of the separate yet interconnected stories contained in her bewitching debut novel, Folk.
Zoe Gilbert has conjured an eerily beautiful world, an un-happily ever after place, drawn from old tales from the Isle of Man, where “moonlight reaches down between branches” and kites strain and wood quivers. The briny air is rich with the scent of sodden thatch, salt sea-fog and cobnut shells. A fiddle mourns for lost loves where wild enchanted characters inhabit a land tethered to sub-pagan ritual.
At times this book languishes in a way that detracts from its narrative. However, Gilbert triumphs with some simply infatuating prose. She spins ancient myth like a true Solomon, recounting a world, unreal yet more real than our own.
And while the pursuit of supernatural storytelling is to create a universe far far away, these constructed worlds cannot help but reflect a kind of hyper-reality, shining light on our own existence, how are we the same, what are we missing? Take the story of Verlyn, a character born with a wing for an arm and sadly defined by that peculiarity. Verlyn’s tale illustrates our misunderstanding of difference and the resultant fear that blinds our ability both to understand and to love.
In Prick Song, ancient ritual prescribes village girls to fire ribboned arrows into a thick gorse maze which young suitors compete to retrieve. Bloody scratch marks earn the boys kisses on their stinging lips, but the proceedings turn grim when a battle ravaged victor is burned alive.
In Water Bull Bride, Gilbert conceives a water bull as Minotaur, who disguises himself as a man so to capture and seduce a bride. Underwater he elicits a sexual appetite in her that cannot be quenched by mortals.
A new mother who is preoccupied by hares wraps her strange offspring in the skins of childhood pets. A young boy named Hark lives behind a waterfall and uses his ox-voice to answer villager’s questions. Each of their stories can stand alone; together they hint at the passage of time, culminating in a deep and strangely beautiful sense of place.
When I finished Folk, I found myself sadly staring at the cover, then out the window, wishing I could return to Gilbert’s mythical land called Neverness, that my bare feet touched a verdant forest floor or that I might shake hands with a less (more?) human being. There’s something incredibly appealing about erasing the sharp angles of contemporary existence, and there’s a sense of loss in the return to hard boiled reality.
This is not a title that will be to everyone’s taste, but lovers of fantasy fiction will admire Gilbert’s work, and I imagine that some soon to be fans will like it too.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on April 12, 2018
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