Thank you to Rosy Thornton for the review copy.
Sandlands is a gorgeous collection of short stories, rooted in the Suffolk countryside, among its people, villages and wildlife. These stories and the images they evoke will live and linger long in my mind. A white doe, appearing suddenly in the dark woods, blue winged butterflies, a barn owl watching over a decades old Oxo tin of love letters, bell ringers, the spirits which exist within a four-hundred-year old house. Rosy Thornton celebrates the flora and fauna of the county she must dearly love, the stories link subtly by landscape, and by the past and present which weaves in and out of these wonderful stories.
The collection opens with The White Doe, in which the appearance of an animal shrouded in folklore, is observed with reverence by Fran. Having lost her mother six months earlier, the woman whom once she would have shared her sightings, Fran reflects on their relationship, and their differing experiences of motherhood.
“There were more sightings after the first. Several times she glimpsed the herd in the woods, away to the left of the path. Twice they moved almost in step with Fran but along a parallel ride, separated from her by a band of silver birches; on another morning they had gathered to graze in a small open area, cleared in the autumn by volunteer coppicers. Always it was the white doe that was visible before her sisters, whose coats bore the same muted grey-brown hues as the winter woodland.”
(from The White Doe)
I would be hard pressed to choose just one favourite story, but The Watcher of Souls would certainly be a contender. Rebecca is living alone now since her husband’s death, walks frequently in the woods near her home. She has become aware of a feeling of being watched – an owl, a barn owl, camouflaged by its surroundings, appears to be watching. Rebecca seems drawn to the owl and the part of the wood it watches over. Rebecca takes to visiting the same spot every day, looking out for her owl. One day she finds an old Oxo tin of letters, which she is convinced is being watched over by the owl, Rebecca is captivated by the story the letters reveal.
Several stories take us into the past, people from the present finding and feeling echoes in the past. There is a slight supernatural element to one of two stories, which remind us how the past and present are so inextricably linked. In Nightingale’s Returns, Flavio travels from his home in Italy to visit Nightingale Farm, where seventy years earlier his father worked during the war. His father Salvatore, a farmer back home, had slipped easily and comfortably into the rhythm of agricultural life in England during those years, and after had never forgotten the farm or the nightingales that had given the farm its name. While the stories of three generations of women are explored in All the Flowers Gone, as Poppy a botanist goes in search of a rare flower on the side of an air base.
“Nightingale Farm the place was called, and his father said they were really there, back in those days, the birds that gave the place its name. Flavio remembered hearing nightingales at his grandparent’s house at San Cesario in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna – hearing them but never seeing one. They were anonymous little brown birds according to Papi, plain as Franciscan fustian, with a drabness quite at odds with the extravagance of their song, and they kept t the densest thickets, nesting deep in the heart of gorse or underscrub. There was, besides, some quality about their song which made its source and direction impossible to gauge.”
(from Nightingale’s Return)
The Witch Bottle is a wonderfully atmospheric story, looking back to the days of witch trials and burnings. A builder working on Kathy’s four-hundred-year old cottage finds a witch bottle while digging up the inglenook. A story of love, obsession and retribution, as Kathy draws closer to builder Nick, the two discover more about the story of Patience Spall a girl accused of murder by witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Curlew call the penultimate story in the collection, brings us back to the present. A young girl, spends her gap year, living as a companion to an elderly disabled woman. A keen naturalist, it is the chance of a year in a county of sand lands, reed beds and the spectacular wildlife that exist there, that drew her to such an old fashioned sounding occupation. Instantly charmed by the curlew call she can hear from her room, she is made welcome by her eccentric employer. In a series of emails to her mother, the story of her employer’s life is gradually revealed.
In other stories, we see ghosts meet bell ringers, the various patrons of The Ship pub, butterfly collectors and Mr Napier, the inhabitant of High House, caring for a fox rescued from the floods, and a runner struggling with her impending motherhood.
I love short stories, I have said that before I know, lots of times, and this collection contains many elements I really love. Strong characters brought to life, within a stunning English landscape, the natural world, folklore, and the past and present weave together seamlessly.
I am delighted to have discovered such a fabulous short story writer, I have had several people recommend me Rosy Thornton novels – which I will look out for, (though – *whispers* – I am trying not to acquire any more books till after I have completed #20booksofsummer – this book was not on my pile so doesn’t count toward my total. Back to it now.