Van has finished reading… Folk by Zoe Gilbert

21 Jan


It’s taken me a while to get to Zoe Gilbert’s debut novel, Folk, and the only thing that stops me saying it was well worth the wait is the realisation that I could’ve been re-reading it by now. The title is wonderfully pertinent. The Folk of fairy tales, of stories handed down through generations; in the craft of it too, the feel that these are homespun skills; and then in the tales themselves – as with the very best of folk tales – it’s not the supernatural or otherworldly that takes precedence but the folk who inhabit Zoe Gilbert’s words. It’s wonderfully immersive, the sights, sounds and smells of Neverness are rich and vivid from the off, the driving rhythm of Prick Song dragging the reader headlong into a paganish ceremony of turning seasons, death and rebirth.

Zoe Gilbert’s Costa Short Story Award-winning Fishskin, Hareskin has been one of my favourite short stories since I first read it, and there are now chapters from Folk that I can add to the list. Sticks Are For Fire and The Water Bull Bride, along with Fishskin, Hareskin best illustrate, for me, what Zoe Gilbert does so well. There’s the sumptuous lyricism of her prose, the precision of her imagery, the cadence of the narrative that makes an eager, listening child of you, and particularly, though there may be other-worldly elements threading through these stories it’s the human element, the ever-present and recognisable dangers of our own world, our own actions that precipitate a coup-de-grace. (And Sticks Are For Fire gets extra points not simply for using ‘widdershins’, which is quite possibly my favourite word, but for using it very much in context). It’s our inherent fallibility as humans which brings us down. After all this time, the local village signpost might easily have worn away to Everness.

I mention short stories here but don’t get caught up in thinking this is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. While it is possible to read these chapters in isolation, and some of them have been published in the form of short stories, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a novel. The sense of place, of both time and timelessness, and of the inhabitants of Neverness shifts and deepens with each chapter. Characters’ appearance are never incidental, albeit they may not be centre-stage for that chapter, and they each carry the inflections of their various histories – just as you’d expect in a novel.

I should also say the ever-so-on-point cover – beautiful, pastoral, quite every-day, with that creeping sense of the sinister the longer you look at it – is quite perfect. A flourish that Mrs van particularly enjoyed are the little illustrations that accompany each chapter – tiny additions, but nicely done and always pertinent.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is a thing of beauty, inside and out. Stories to stir your inner child, told with all the depth and subtlety a grown-up needs. Glorious.

Folk was published by Bloomsbury on the 18th February 2018 ISBN:9781408884393

You can find Zoe on Twitter @mindandlanguage or at The Word Factory, or at London Lit Lab, where she runs writing workshops with fellow writer Lily Dunn.


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