"Winman’s gorgeous prose seduces and bewitches from the first page to the last."
Sarah Winman came to our attention five years ago with her astonishing debut, When God Was a Rabbit. It was a shoo-in for the Richard and Judy Book Club and became an overnight best seller. Follow that, as they say.
Well, Sarah has. If anything, her writing has developed and matured: we both found A Year of Marvellous Ways hauntingly, beautifully written. Other reviewers have described her latest story as an example of what’s known as ‘magical realism’ and that’s a good way to describe it. Set in a remote, misty Cornish creek near an isolated hamlet, the story is rich in fairy-tale allusions, with mermaids, bakers whose ‘moods’ can be tasted in their bread, and journeys into the dark woods. And yet all of it is perfectly literal and believable. As in the best fairy tales, there is little or no difficulty is suspending one’s disbelief. Winman’s gorgeous prose seduces and bewitches from the first page to the last.
The story begins in 1947. We find Marvellous Ways, eighty nine years old and living in the same tiny tidal estuary where she has spent most of her life, waiting. Simply that: waiting. Quite what for, Marvellous does not know, but she keeps a telescope close to hand so she will be able to spot whatever it is in good time. She is quite certain of one thing – when her fate, or destiny, comes into view, she will know it for what it is.
And so will we.
"Sarah Winman has an extraordinary writing style that dips and curls and loops and sighs its way across the pages"
I guarantee you won’t have read anything quite like this book before; at times it’s almost like inhabiting another person’s dream. Sarah Winman has an extraordinary writing style that dips and curls and loops and sighs its way across the pages; there’s a lovely poetry here. Take this, from the opening page.
‘She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Paper Jack’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message. Wait, for it’s coming.’
The ‘it’ is in fact a ‘he’ – Francis Drake. Drake is a soldier shattered by his experiences in France at the end of the second world war. Today he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Drake is on a mission of honour; to deliver a letter from a fellow soldier who didn’t make it home alive. The letter is to the dead man’s father in Cornwall. After distressing experiences along the way, Drake washes up in Marvellous’s forgotten creek, an utterly broken young man.
She sets about healing him with her stories; stories about the great loves in her life and her magical hinterland (Marvellous’s mother was a mermaid, shot soon after her daughter’s birth, mistaken for a frolicking seal).
And without giving anything away, let me reassure you right now regarding this story’s ending.
Here are a selection of the reviews for A Year of Marvellous Ways
"Moving… offbeat and memorable."
Woman & Home
"Fanciful imagery and beautiful prose that ebbs and flows."
"A gripping waiting game … The novel’s surprising denouement is also well worth the wait."