The very act of writing is a kind of magic. Small black etchings on paper conjure up worlds, people, events, transporting you, the reader, to a different place, a different time. Really, it’s one short leap from “spell” and “casting a spell” to “spelling.”
How easily Lucy Wood in Diving Belles makes magic. In story after story in her debut collection, a previously inert world becomes animated. The dead are here, houses have spirits, the buccas will take your loved ones if you are not careful. Wood draws on a long tradition of magical realism writing or what the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier called “lo real maravilloso” or “marvelous realism” to show us that magic inheres right here, in the natural and human realms.
Cornwall’s old sayings, myths and landscape are often the jumping off point for Wood’s stories. These admonitions and proverbs are woven into the psyche of the people who populate Wood’s stories, so when magic begins, it is not balked at, but at some level, accepted.
In “Lights in Other People’s Houses,” an old sailor’s prayer (God keep us from rocks and shelving sands, And save us from Breage and Germoe men’s hands) sets the tone and atmosphere for a story in which reality collides with a sailor’s ghost occupying Maddy’s and Russell’s house. “Maddy squatted down to open the bottom drawer and saw damp footprints on the floor. They were boot prints, big and criss-crossed with sand. They hadn’t been there before.” Soon the ghost and Maddy are sorting through her boxes, while sand and stones are piling up on the carpets. The house becomes “a nest of his smells and noises—smoke, seaweed, the wind moving across water—and they seeped out into the rest of the flat, hung across it like low fog.”
In “Beachcombing,” a grandmother and her grandson spend their days looking for lost objects at the beach—knives and forks, feathers, a pair of glasses, a door. Grandma lives in a cave at the beach, and though it’s cold, she won’t budge. Over the course of the story, we learn she failed to abide by the Cornwall tradition of setting aside a portion of the catch to propitiate the Buccas. It is because of this she lost her husband and son. Buccas, we learn from Oscar, her grandson, can’t be seen. “[Y]ou can only see what they do to other things. So, if the sand is whirling around and the waves are white and choppy and your hair is whipped up and around then there is probably a bucca.”
Nearly all the stories are grounded in a recognizable concrete world, with the extraordinary and ordinary comfortably coinciding. In “Diving Belles,” Demelza runs a brisk business, taking widows to the bottom of the sea in an ancient diving bell to see their drowned sailor husbands. Iris signs up, hoping to see her husband who died forty-eight years ago. “Salt and spray leapt up to meet the bell as it slapped into the sea. Cold, dark water surged upwards. Iris lifted her feet, waiting for the air pressure in the bell to level off the water underneath the footrest.” She does find her husband, but Wood does the right thing and makes the ending a surprise.
If part of the exercise of magic is to remind us of the malleable texture of perception (and to awaken our child-like awe at the world), then the magic in “Notes from the House Spirits” is a wonderful success. Wood delays who, exactly, is the plural first person narrator of this story. “We notice how thin the carpet is getting. We notice how the clocks make the walls sound hollow. We don’t like the walls to sound hollow so we stop the hands on one or two clocks, but only on one or two, and maybe we loosen the battery in the back of another.” The narrator has a strong personality with strong likes and dislikes, and as the occupiers of the house come and go, one leaving butterballs covered in dust and hair behind the sofa, the reader finally understands this story will remain, thankfully, in the voice of the house spirits.
Throughout, Wood sprinkles a measured amount of magic, just enough so the rational self can slip away and let the reader wake up her perception and her childlike astonishment at the world again.