Folk – Zoe Gilbert

Genre – Fantasy / Magic Realism

Book Cover  5 *****

Rating – 5 *****

Once again Bloomsbury manages to produce a cover design that conveys the essence and whimsy of the tale within with absolute brilliance. It is reminiscent of old Russian folktale art with its climbing, thorny vines, dark red flowers set against a black background, pretty birds with beaks dipped in blood and ominous splotches of red on the font. So, even before reading a single sentence of the book, one is primed to expect stories that are prickly, with lots of red-hot passion, murder, mayhem and with heavy dollops of accompanying tragedy.

This collection by Zoe Gilbert is set in the island village of Neverness and consists of 15 short stories. All the stories are interlinked by virtue of being set in the same village and dealing with the various residents who form the main characters in some stories and part of the background in others. There is a map (always an added bonus) at the beginning of the book that shows the layout of the entire village and helps to figure out where these quickly familiar characters live in relation to each other and the major landmarks around them.

Neverness is a village where magic is inherently woven into the fabric of life and is thus considered a normal everyday thing. For example, there is a boy born with a wing instead of an arm and everyone else in this village treats it as an irksome handicap rather than fainting with the shock of witnessing a bird-human hybrid. As if continuing the connection of the Russian backdrop from the cover, there is an element of Russian folktale-like underlying current of tragedy in almost every story. Also, it feels as if winter is always just around the corner in this isolated little island. As a sort of counter-point to the atmosphere and their isolation, the people come across as stalwart and a little devoid of humour, with a well-spring of patience and burning passions lurking underneath the surface. Even their celebrations, like the one at every New Year’s Eve, are more along the lines of a blood-thirsty sport with the promise of some form of sexual gratification at the end. When you realize that the sport is being played by teenagers, it takes on another layer of unreality and other-worldliness.

The stories are dark and solemn, talking about the lives lived and lost in a small community. The stories are filled with heartbreak, aching loss, nostalgia, loneliness and a kernel of uplifting hope. These are stories about families – sisters and mothers and fathers and sons. It’s a story of friends who help another when they get in over their heads. It is about superstitions coming to life. There are stories about coming of age in different ways. There are stories of sheer brutality and even murder. There are stories about how a small community will turn its face away from an ugly truth rather than rock the boat.

In short, these stories are not for the faint hearted, or ones who would like a conventional fairytale. As the stories progress, many passing references unwind into full-fledged stories of their own, opening up the lives of the villagers as if to a stranger newly settled come to town. One story, where a stranger does come to town, was darkly funny with a nod to the oft-repeated and very truthful adage ‘be careful what you wish for’.

The first and last stories are like bookends, as they complete a cycle. The characters who began as teenagers in the first are now adults with young ones of their own in the last tale. Some of them have survived the transition, both physically and spiritually better than others, while some are still struggling. By the end of the book, the reader knows them as well as the author knows them. There are hidden depths to each tale that are not too difficult to discern and as such are a pleasure to read again and again.

The author’s prose is interlaced with metaphors that combine nature and everyday life into a sentence that is almost poetic in its essence. For instance, ‘The door of the day is nearly shut, but it is the hinge of the year itself’ when describing the evening at the turn of the year. Her imagination has a uniqueness that is as refreshing as it is disturbing. Even the title of the book, ‘Folk’, is understated in its simplicity and elegance. It manages to convey just the right amount of information and intrigue to the reader.

For lovers of the fantasy and short story genre, this first time offering by Zoe Gilbert is a gift that will be enjoyed for years to come.

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