A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When Book Foxes Hilary and Moira discovered that each of them, separately, had intended to review their friend Rosy Thornton’s newly-published collection of short stories, Sandlands, there was a brief and civilized tussle before they came to that most British of solutions: a compromise. They would, they agreed, review the book together.
As so often happens when the Foxes engage in joint enterprises, one of them was on a train … but they ended up speaking very much with one voice:
M: Short stories aren’t generally my automatic go-to for reading matter; they’re good for reading in bed last thing at night because you don’t have to try and remember what went before – but other than that, I prefer full length novels, or at least novellas. There are exceptions, of course: Somerset Maugham’s Rain is right at the top of my list of ‘Things I wish I’d written’ – a list to which I will now have to add Sandlands.
One of the reasons, apart from the sheer quality of the writing, is that all the stories are set in the same location – in and around the village of Blaxhall in coastal Suffolk – so that together they make a coherent whole, in the same way that Lark Rise to Candleford does. (Lark Rise is, of course, also a collection of short stories, but somehow I never think of it in that way.)
By the time I came to the end of the final story, I felt I knew the area personally – Wickham Market station at Campsea Ashe, Silly Hill, the strangely land-locked Ship Inn with its regulars George and Jim (or possibly Jim and George) – they’re recurrent characters in their own right and keep you grounded even when the stories themselves start to bend spacetime in a most disconcerting manner.
H: I agree – on several counts. Like you, I do not reach for short stories as a matter of course – but maybe my total absorption in these stories is trying to tell me what I’m missing. And the quality of writing is exceptionally fine, I am in complete agreement with you. Every story is crafted to perfection. I found myself going back to re-read each one, wanting to extract every last drop of imagery, allusion and meaning, to peel back its layers. Equally, I found I couldn’t read them one after another at a stretch – I needed to stay in the concentrated moment of the current story, and not have the next one break into it too soon.
I too loved the sense of place. Rosy succeeds triumphantly in the challenge of conjuring up the strange beauty of this difficult Suffolk landscape, so flat that even the slightest rise in the ground is important, so provisional where land and sea are confused and debatable. It must be a land of fantasy for you, Moira, surrounded by the hills and with the ground rock solid beneath your feet.
I spent some time wondering how I’d like to approach reviewing Sandlands, and the more I thought about it, the more I’ve wanted to say in its praise, while the less I’ve wanted to reveal. I had a long mental list of its felicities – brilliant excursions into the mind of humans and wild creatures; sights and sounds; music and traditions – but one by one I crossed them off, because what dawned on me was that the greatest delight in reading Sandlands was the surprise over every page, the constant refreshment of the scene, the introduction of a new voice. I know enough not to offer plot spoilers, but this time I found I didn’t want to offer atmospheric or stylistic spoilers either. I want every reader of Sandlands to experience the same sense of discovery as I did. Thinking some more about this: I found so many landscapes, characters and details in these stories that made a direct way into my heart. I could list them, yet they might not mean the same to another reader. I guarantee, though, that all its readers will find their own personal ‘eureka’ moments throughout this collection. However, while I’m eschewing spoilers, I don’t think I can resist just mentioning that there’s delightful, and incredibly poignant, homage to Dorothy L Sayers in one of the stories.
M: You’re quite right – as someone who’s been an upland dweller most of her life, I’ve always considered Suffolk flat, featureless and rather unalluring … until now. Rosy’s palpable love for the area has made me feel that I really need to make the effort to go and take a closer, not to mention more informed, look at it.
And yes, it is indeed very hard to talk about Sandlands in any detail at all without spoiling it for those who have yet to discover it – except possibly to emphasize again the sheer beauty of the writing. Take for example this perfect description of the classic hair colour – ‘mouse’:
‘… that pale English dusty fawn from which the pigment seems to leach away gradually with the years instead of any positive change to grey’
One thing we can safely say I think is that, aside from the location in which they’re set, what links all of the stories in the book is the concept that our present is inextricably linked to our past, which is still there – back down the road we and those around us have all travelled – shaping our world and colouring our minds in ways most of us are barely even aware of.
This is an extraordinary collection of short stories: each linked, each different and each un-put-downable. You can’t quite tell where they’re going until the moment before they get there – and the denouement is always just exactly right.
To finish, I would like to add one tiny spoiler, if I may. It’s just to say that in a couple of stories, Rosy channels M R James so adeptly, the master himself wouldn’t have been ashamed to claim them as his own …
H: Finally, I’d like to say what a beautiful object the paperback is. Sandstone Press has done a superb job on its design and production, the readability of the text on the page, and (special gold star for this) the complete absence of typos (I wish I didn’t have to praise this). The cover design has quite the most gorgeous owl on it, which does give a tiny clue that this may be a book where owls play a part – and I do so love owls.
It seems as though my digested review, in the absence of providing hard facts, extracts and spoilers, has to be ‘Read This! – for the elegance and emotional truth of the writing, and for addictive storytelling on every page. You won’t be disappointed, take it from me. And from hereon in, you will understand why some stories find perfection in being short.’ I think we both agree that Rosy has created something quite exceptional in Sandlands.
Sandstone Press Ltd. 2016. ISBN: 978-1-910985-04-5. 262pp.