Diving Belles: And Other Stories

by Lucy Wood

This whimsical and spellbinding debut collection of stories creates fresh and contemporary tales of how magic and myth work in our everyday lives, as it mines the rich folklore and history of Cornwall.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547595535
  • ISBN-10: 0547595530
  • Pages: 240
  • Publication Date: 08/07/2012
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    In the tradition of Angela Carter, this luminous, spellbinding debut reinvents the stuff of myth.

    Straying husbands lured into the sea by mermaids can be fetched back, for a fee. Trees can make wishes come true. Houses creak and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A mother, who seems alone and lonely, may be rubbing sore muscles or holding the hands of her invisible lover as he touches her neck. Phantom hounds roam the moors and, on a windy beach, a boy and his grandmother beat back despair with an old white door.

    In these stories, the line between the real and the imagined is blurred as Lucy Wood takes us to Cornwall’s ancient coast, building on its rich storytelling history and recasting its myths in thoroughly contemporary ways. Calling forth the fantastic and fantastical, she mines these legends for that bit of magic remaining in all our lives—if only we can let ourselves see it.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    Diving Belles 

    Iris crossed her brittle ankles and folded her hands in her lap as the diving bell creaked and juddered towards the sea. At first, she could hear Demelza shouting and cursing as she cranked the winch, but as the bell was cantilevered away from the deck her voice was lost in the wind. Cold air rushed through the open bottom of the bell, bringing with it the rusty smell of The Matriarch’s liver-spotted flanks and the brackish damp of seaweed. The bench Iris was sitting on was narrow and every time the diving bell rocked she pressed against the footrest to steady herself. She kept imagining that she was inside a church bell and that she was the clapper about to ring out loudly into the water, announcing something. She fixed her eyes on the small window and didn’t look down. There was no floor beneath her feet, just a wide open gap, and the sea peaked and spat. She lurched downwards slowly, metres away from the side of the trawler, where a layer of barnacles and mussels clung on like the survivors of a shipwreck.
       She fretted with her new dress and her borrowed shoes. She tried to smooth her white hair, which turned wiry when it was close to water. The wooden bench was digging into her and the wind was rushing up her legs, snagging at the dress and exposing the map of her veins. She’d forgotten tights; she always wore trousers and knew it was a mistake to wear a dress. She’d let herself get talked into it, but had chosen brown, a small victory. She gathered the skirt up and sat on it. If this was going to be the first time she saw her husband in forty-eight years she didn’t want to draw attention to the state of her legs. ‘You’ve got to be heartbreaking as hell,’ Demelza advised her customers, pointing at them with her cigarette. ‘Because you’ve got a lot of competition down there.’
       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 didn’t want anything oily or foamy to stain Annie’s shoes. She went through a checklist – Vanish, cream cleaner, a bit of bicarb – something would get it out but it would be a fuss. She pulled her cardigan sleeves down and straightened the life-jacket. Thousands of bubbles forced themselves up the sides of the diving bell, rolling over the window like marbles. She peered out but couldn’t see anything beyond the disturbed water.
       As she was lowered further the sea calmed and stilled. Everything was silent. She put her feet back down and looked into the disc of water below them, which was flat and thick and barely rippled. She could be looking at a lino or slate floor rather than a gap that opened into all those airless fathoms. A smudged grey shape floated past. The diving bell jolted and tipped, then righted itself and sank lower through the water.
       Iris held her handbag against her chest and tried not to breathe too quickly. She had about two hours’ worth of oxygen but if she panicked or became over-excited she would use it up more quickly. Her fingers laced and unlaced. ‘I don’t want to have to haul you back up here like a limp fish,’ Demelza had told her each time she’d gone down in the bell. ‘Don’t go thinking you’re an expert or anything. One pull on the cord to stop, another to start again. Two tugs for the net and three to come back up. Got it?’ Iris had written the instructions down the first time in her thin, messy writing and put them in her bag along with tissues and mints, just in case. The pull-cord was threaded through a tube that ran alongside the chain attaching the bell to the trawler. Demelza tied her end of it to a cymbal that she’d rigged on to a tripod, so that it crashed loudly whenever someone pulled on it. The other end of the cord drooped down and brushed roughly against the top of Iris’s head.
       She couldn’t see much out of the window; it all looked grey and endless, as if she were moving through fog rather than water. The diving bell dropped down slowly, slower, and then stopped moving altogether. The chain slackened and for a second it seemed as though the bell had been cut off and was about to float away. Then the chain straightened out and Iris rocked sideways, caught between the tension above and the bell’s heavy lead rim below. She hung suspended in the mid-depths of the sea. This had happened on her second dive as well. Demelza had suddenly stopped winching, locked the handle and gone to check over her co-ordinates one last time. She wouldn’t allow the diving bell to land even a foot off the target she’d set herself.
       The bell swayed. Iris sat very still and tried not to imagine the weight of the water pressing in. She took a couple of rattling breaths. It was like those moments when she woke up in the middle of the night, breathless and alone, reaching across the bed and finding nothing but a heap of night-chilled pillows. She just needed to relax and wait, relax and wait. She took out a mint and crunched down hard, the grainy sugar digging into her back teeth.
       After a few moments Demelza started winching again and Iris loosened her shoulders, glad to be on the move. Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.
       Demelza thought that this would be a good place to trawl. She’d sent Iris down to the same spot already. ‘Sooner or later,’ she said, ‘they all come back. They stay local, you see. They might go gallivanting off for a while, but they always come back to the same spot. They’re nostalgic bastards, sentimental as hell. That makes them stupid. Not like us though, eh?’ she added, yanking Iris’s life-jacket straps tighter.
       A cuckoo wrasse weaved in and out of the ship’s bones. Cuttlefish mooned about like lost old men. Iris spat on her glasses, wiped them on her cardigan, hooked them over her ears, and waited.

    Over the years, she had tried to banish as many lonely moments as possible. She kept busy. She took as many shifts as she could at the hotel, and then when that stopped she became addicted to car boot sales – travelling round to different ones at the weekends, sifting through chipped plates and dolls and candelabra, never buying anything, just sifting through. She joined a pen pal company and started writing to a man in Orkney; she liked hearing about the sudden weather and the seals hauled out on the beach, his bus and his paintings. ‘I am fine as always,’ she would write, but stopped when he began to send dark, tormented paintings, faces almost hidden under black and red.
       She knew how to keep busy most of the day and, over time, her body learned to shut down and nap during the blank gap straight after lunch. It worked almos...

  • Reviews

    "Lucy Wood is a sorceress. These stories unfold in a dreamy marine light, one that reveals the miraculous in the everyday. Diving Belles is a perfect name for this debut: It is guaranteed to enrapture a reader, and you'll want to come up slowly from its depths."
    —Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

    "What sets British writer Wood apart... is how grounded the magical element is in the reality of her stories... The magic is always embedded, not only in familiar stories from folklore, but in the personal myths of the characters' lives. Thus there is a quiet realism to even the most extraordinary events... This combination of subtle humor and everyday magic makes Diving Belles an engaging collection of contemporary folklore."
    Minneapolis Star Tribune

    "How easily Lucy Wood in Diving Belles makes magic. In story after story in her debut collection, a previously inert world becomes animated... 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. 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."
    Rumpus

    Diving Belles is a lovely, absorbing collection of tales, animated by Lucy Wood's remarkable gift for evoking Cornwall as both a physical and mythic place. She is writing out of a rich tradition yet making it utterly her own.”
    —Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles and Madeleine Is Sleeping

     

    "Each year, book blurbs tell you that a thousand new writers have fresh, distinctive voices. But fresh, distinctive voices are actually very rare. Lucy Wood has one."
    —Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White

    "Lucy Wood has an intensity and clarity of expression, deeply rooted in a sense of place. Her stories have a purity and strength, and an underlying human warmth; they resonate in the mind."
    —Philip Hensher, author of The Northern Clemency

    "These stories are brilliantly uncanny: not because of the ghosts and giants and talking birds which haunt their margins, but because of what those unsettling presences mean for the very human characters at their centre ... A startling, and startlingly good, debut."
    —Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

    "These are stories from the places where magic and reality meet. It is as if the Cornish moors and coasts have whispered secrets into Lucy Wood’s ears and, in response, she has fashioned exquisite tales of mystery and humanity. In her prose, the fabulous moves across the everyday like the surf moving over the shore, shifting it in subtle measures, leaving it altered in its wake."
    —Ali Shaw, author of The Girl with Glass Feet

     

    "Wood captures something fresh, fantastical and eloquent...These stories express a distinctive voice and a gently beguiling imagination."

    Kirkus

     

    "Whimsical...Lovers of fairy tales and Celtic lore will take pleasure in immersing themselves in the rich, magical world Wood’s tales inhabit."

    —Booklist

     

    "Aching and mystical...These are distinctively grown-up fairy tales that re-create a sense of wonder and imagination without the moral endings of their childhood counterparts, but, like them, linger in the imagination."

    Publishers Weekly

     

    “Magical and bewitching tales.”
    Vogue (UK)

    “Wood’s finely wrought collection has touches of a benign Angela Carter and recalls the playful yet political transmogrifications of Atwood and Byatt ... Dreamily nuanced.”
    Guardian (UK)

    "These tales are soaked in the magic and folklore of the place—but the magic is often an expression of inexpressible human emotion…Wood’s imagination is extraordinary; she has an instinct for the inner meanings of myths that echoes the great Angela Carter. Superb."
    The Times (UK)

    "A vibrant new voice ... Why read it: for her distinctive voice and sense of place."
    Tatler, "Top Titles" (UK)

    "Llovely and intriguing ... Wood pulls off a careful balancing act between fantasy and reality, folkloric past and prosaic present...Winsome, quirky, and sometimes enchanting, Wood’s stories seem to fish about in rock pools of imagination... Her gift… is for conjuring up gentle suspensions of disbelief."
    The Sunday Times (UK)

    "Cornish folklore for the modern day, done in a beautiful, spooky way."
    Harper’s Bazaar (UK)

    "This bewitching short story collection draws its power from a deft blend of Cornish folklore and everyday contemporary cares. Centered mostly around women—young women, old women, women becalmed somewhere in between—magic encroaches upon their narratives as slowly but surely as the incoming tide, so that even the most outlandish goings-on come to seem natural."
    Daily Mail (UK)

    "A winning combination of spooky mystery and toast-and-tea coziness, with much warmth and tenderness."
    Metro (UK), 4/5 stars

    "Cornwall’s magic casts some pretty strong spells. The stories in Lucy Wood’s debut collection have a distinctly otherworldly sensation to them—slightly surreal, steeped in enchantments and shimmering with an infusion of the area’s folklore and landscape… Wood strikes a sure and canny balance of worlds colliding and merging; her wry and gentle humor emphasizes that fusion all the more."
    Independent on Sunday (UK)

     

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