More and more, as he camped out on the dusty boarded floor that summer and into autumn, he found himself preoccupied by the notion of echoes…
Another collection of short stories that has been slowly working through my brain, changing my mind about the form: Rosy Thornton’s Sandlands. The short stories that work for me, I find, are the ones that are connected somehow, either through shared characters or by circling around a theme, an image, a repeated idea. Thornton’s stories share a few characters, but mostly what she does in these pieces is address a couple of different ideas from various angles. I’ll structure this review by taking those ideas one by one, and looking at what she does with them.
Firstly: actual ghosts. There are, as Helen at She Reads Novels points out, not many actual ghost stories in Sandlands, but there are many which evoke the past’s presence in the here and now, and one or two which—for my money—do feature spectres. “Mad Maudlin” is told by a researcher working on Suffolk folk musical traditions. She’s viewing film clips of jam sessions in a local pub: one film she took earlier that day, and other rolls from 1979 and even as far back as 1954. As the story progresses, she realizes that one of the singers never seems to change, and bears a remarkable resemblance to a photograph on the pub wall… The narrator’s increasing nervousness is punctuated by italicized snippets from the song that the mysterious woman is always singing, in every clip, a song called Mad Maudlin, about a crazy woman in love with a crazy man. Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, Bedlam boys are bonny… The ending—perhaps the most overtly horror-movie-like in the collection—gave me little shivers of terror and delight.
Secondly: figurative ghosts. Many of Thornton’s stories are told by two characters, who bounce the narrative back and forth between them. Sometimes the historical voice comes in the form of documents: in “The Watcher of Souls”, Rebecca finds a cache of letters in a tree trunk written by a lovestruck housemaid. Other times, there is no documentary evidence, and we’re left with the perspective that only a fiction writer can give us: getting inside the head of someone who lived long ago. “Nightingale’s Return” sees an Italian man, Flavio, flying to Sussex to seek out the farm where his father, Salvatore, had worked as a kindly-treated prisoner in WWII. Both of them tell the story in turn, and with the perspectives of both, the reader acquires the full knowledge of what happened at Nightingale Farm, which neither Flavio nor Salvatore alone can have. It’s a bittersweet feeling.
Thornton often uses landscape as a touchstone for stories that occur in the same place at different points in time.”All the Flowers Gone” happens in the same stretch of Suffolk countryside near an air force base, but is told by three generations of women in the same family. Lilian, a seventeen-year-old cleaner, cycles along the Tunstall Lane on her way to work at the base. Twenty years later, her daughter Rosa cycles along the Tunstall lane (note the slight difference in the name) on her way to a protest at that same base. And twenty years further on, Rosa’s daughter Poppy (Lilian’s granddaughter) cycles along Tunstall Lane (it’s now become a proper B road) in her capacity as a botanist to look at a rare-blooming flower that someone has found at the base. Again, Thornton juxtaposes the three stories so that, together, we learn something that none of the protagonists individually can know: namely, the fact that the seeds of Poppy’s flowers were scattered by Lilian, mourning the loss of a pilot whom she had loved, sixty years previously. She’s so deft with these reveals, her touch so light, that what could be sentimental is instead achingly tender.
The past is not always benign. In “Whispers”, Dr. Theodore Whybrow, stalled Cambridge academic, moves into a Martello tower in which he is convinced that his subject, a minor Regency poet, must have been stationed during the Napoleonic wars. He gets his mojo back—he starts to write again—but the scenes where he lies on the floor of the tower, wrapped in a blanket, suggest that the past is powerful, that conjuring the dead can move you in ways you didn’t expect:
There was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy—yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated—which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.
More alarmingly still, the academic protagonist of “A Curiosity Of Warnings” finds himself caught up in family history that connects him to the ghost story writer MR James, and to the legendary crown of Raedwald, king of the East Angles. It’s never clear whether his sense of being pursued is down to his own madness or to something truly malevolent, but in a way that uncertainty doesn’t matter and is, indeed, the point: the thing chasing us doesn’t need to be tangible in order to be real. Likewise, in “The Witch Bottle”, newly divorced Kathy and her builder Nick find love with each other only to come up against the intractable history of Kathy’s house: centuries ago, its master was burned to death on his wedding night. A village girl, Patience Spall, was arrested for the crime, tried at the Bury St. Edmunds assizes, and burned as a witch the next day. As in other stories, we hear from Patience in her own words, and it’s left up to us to decide whether the story’s dénouement is really supernatural vengeance, or just a deeply unnerving coincidence.
Perhaps my favourite two stories were the final two, “Curlew Call” and “Mackerel”. Thornton does a beautiful job of elegizing the dying near-past, here represented by two women of the World War II generation. In “Curlew Call”, a young woman moves from London to be a carer for elderly painter Agnes; in “Mackerel”, another young woman and her grandmother swap off points of view (like in “Nightingale’s Return”). “Mackerel” in particular captures this sad strain of being one of the only members of your generation left.
Cancer played games, too, with Ganny’s friend Rebecca; hers was in the kidney and looked to be beaten, Ganny told us, before it came back everywhere at once… With Harry Housego next door, who’d survived the war and German prison camp with nothing worse than the shade of a limp, it was, finally, his heart; his friend Philip Root had fought in the Battle of Britain but died in his armchair at the nursing home in front of Bargain Hunt. Then there was old Rose Wilderspin who nursed her Albert for five whole years before outliving him by less than one… ‘It’ll soon be only me left’, Ganny likes to say, with as much determined pride as sadness.
We’ve met all of those characters in previous stories—Harry, Philip, Rose—most often as young people. It’s like being strangely, casually punched to be catapulted into the present day to discover how they died. And there’s Ganny herself, whose internal monologue tells us she’s been through more pain than her grandchildren will ever realize:
Captured by the Italians in the Peloponnese in ’41, Frank was shipped to Italy and set to work on a farm there. Not much more than a smallholding, he said in his letters, with some scrubby vines and a few olive trees. I kept the letters, even later, after I met Bill; one a week, he wrote me, for almost three years. He was killed joining up with the Allied invaders in the winter of ’44. Funny how things work out. If it hadn’t been for the times, that rush to wed before a tomorrow that might not come, it could have been an Italian farm girl he’d left on her own and pregnant instead of me.
I’ve never been to Suffolk, but even I can recognize that these stories are suffused with a deep love for it: its sandy lanes, its coastal flats, and above all, its people. Rosy Thornton is probably best known for her romantic novels, but going by this collection, she’s a wonderful and thoughtful literary fiction writer too (I hate making that distinction, but it’s hard to articulate in a different way). If you’re holidaying in Suffolk this year, or if you just want a beautiful collection of attention-holding stories, don’t miss Sandlands.
Many thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy. Sandlands was published in the UK by Sandstone Press on 21 July.