Wednesday 11 April 2012

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood, Bloomsbury Publishing

There is a vein running through modern short fiction that adheres to the dictum ‘less-is-more.’  This can be congratulated where what is being described uses just enough words for us to care about the content; after all, few wish to be bombarded by overtly purple prose.  But if there isn’t enough content at the outset, we are left floundering wondering what we are expected to care about in what remains.  This is the issue I have with this, Lucy Wood’s debut.
  I anticipated at the very least some semblance of character motivation and sense of purpose.  In DIVING BELLES there is too little of the former and none of the latter.  This isn’t to say the collection is without merit.  Wood’s conciseness and conscious avoidance of cliché (to the extent some of her similes and metaphors challenge instant recognition) are without question and work well. 
  With ‘Notes from the House Spirits,’ the most successful entry, a home’s ghost relates its various domestic invasions by the material world.  In the title story, a widow in denial takes up the chance to return to the underwater site where she last saw her husband.  In each case we are given enough information to follow the prescribed structure of the story.  Throughout the other ten entries, Wood otherwise remains strong on setting mood via her descriptions of nature and its elemental changes.
  Elsewhere, the approach of minimalist ‘poetic’ prose leaves too much to call on from the reader.  Strangeness alone fails to communicate the uncanny or inspire any emotion when it feels like strangeness for its own sake.  Recognisable character-types are, at the outset, vital so the strangeness that gradually encroaches, from, or, upon them, becomes the issue.  I am reminded of the on-stage celebrity singer who, after singing the verse of a well-known hit, points his microphone to the audience for them to complete the chorus.  Yes, we might be able to fill in the gaps but would have preferred it came from the star we paid to hear. The result is a feeling of being short-changed.  Consequently, here, ideas remain inevitably under-exploited.
  Of these remainder, the sense of unreality, presumably intended, is misplaced.  Characters merely ‘do’, either out of habit or routine, with no subjective intent or narrative momentum.  Each tale’s ‘climax’ peters out as we wonder just what the author was trying to portray.  (I wonder if Wood has read Beckett).
  There are glimpses of possible, future excellence but they flare all too briefly for certainty in a flash of rare wit or spark of rural dark.  Wood has held back too much here and – unlike her gushing jacket reviewers - seriously undersold. 
  Wood is, by her own account, attempting a novel.  I wish her luck and we now know the strengths she has to draw upon.  But I do hope, with the extra length afforded by the form, she makes us care about her characters and at least intimate before its end why they are doing what they do. 


  1. Another excellent post, Mark. There is, arguably, an under-appreciation for the poetic beauty of langauge in contemporary writing. The aesthetic has been replaced by the practical. I once overheard a conversation between two fellow University students bemoaning the Romantic poets. "When will we ever use that in the real world?" was the question that almost made me interrupt their conversation. In most artistic areas I would consider myself minimalist, but when it comes to language I would much rather read the full breadth and wonder of it than the Spartan prose so popular with publishers (and readers) today.

  2. Cheers, Jason. I appreciate the support. Regarding your last point, I'm glad I'm not alone in this; though I've not heard it from anyone else.

    Were, I wonder, those uni. students you overheard complaining of its original use, or bemoaning that it would never be used again? If the former, they need a good kicking. If the latter, there may be hope for us yet.

    One other thing: my reviewing a Bloomsbury pub. is probably a one-off, as I'd rather continue concentrating on small and inde. publishers. BUT, this is LW's first book and she graduated from Exeter Uni., close to where I live. My excuses. Mark

  3. This is a niggardly review. The short story is hardly the genre for exploring "character motivation and sense of purpose." You don't find very much of this in Chekhov's short stories, and nor are you meant to. It's the same with Saki. You seem to be complaining that these short stories ARE short stories...