Hachette Australia/Tinder Press, RRP $29.99
Never judge a book by its cover.
Ok, that is both a useful and true statement in many ways but, to be perfectly frank, I love an appealing book cover and I really don’t care if that makes me seem shallow. Many a time I have run my eye over a shelf, or table, or pile of books, and it has come to rest on a particularly interesting book cover—be it the colour, the font, or the image—and this has been the introduction to another joyful reading adventure. And this visual shallowness is how I came to get my hands on a copy of Sarah Winman’s new novel, A Year of Marvellous Ways. The blue page-ends, and then the cover image caught my eye, and that was that.
A Year of Marvellous Ways is the story of Marvellous Ways, an elderly women living alone along the banks of a Cornish river in 1947. She takes in and cares for the broken young soldier, Drake, who washes up at her door one night. The pair become friends, living from the land (and water) together in a world seemingly apart from time, slowly revealing and coming to find peace with their pasts in order to move on to the next stages of their lives.
Winman’s atmospheric and evocative writing creates Marvellous’s world as a world of nature infused with magic, a world outside of the rapidly changing world of towns and cities.* This is a world disconnected from a strong sense of place, we know that it is in England from the experiences of both Drake and Marvellous but it is not recognisably English, it could just as easily be a river side location in Australia or America. And each time one of the characters venture out of this world apart, into the surrounding world, it is a jolt to remember that yes, this is post-World War II England with all its freshly covered over scars of war.
Emotionally this novel walks a fine line between the sense of joy incumbent in the magical world presented to us by Marvellous, and the bitter bleakness that seeps in from the outside world. Drake’s experiences as a soldier at war—or as a soldier returning post-war to a world where the scars of wartime are not erased by the cessation of hostilities—carry trauma into the world that he occupies with Marvellous. And for Marvellous, the intrusion of the real world seems only to emphasise her vulnerable state—a woman who has spent most her life living alone in an isolated location. At the end of the novel the reader is left with a thread of melancholy and disquiet despite the resolutions of the story. †
Once past the initial scene setting this novel was easy to become immersed within, chasing the bread crumb trails of Marvellous’s story through layers of beautiful prose, racing to see where her story—and those of the other characters— would finish up. And I was quite happily engaged with this until close to the end of the novel. Then as the ends of the stories started to wrap up there was just one too many coincidences—one too many moments where two people who were strangers a year ago were interconnected—for me to be fully satisfied with the ending of the novel. This was disconcerting, even a little disappointing, after having my reading self so wrapped up in the lives of Marvellous and Drake.
Despite hitting an off-note for me with the ending A Year of Marvellous Ways is a beautifully written installation in the magical realism genre and it creates characters and a world well worth exploring.
*I should mention here that part of Winman’s style includes a lack of the use of quotation marks for speaking and seamlessly moving from present to past to present again without any clear indication that this has occurred. It was a disconcerting reading experience for me initially but stopped bothering me after the first few times. And if you are a pre-warned reader it might not even make you miss a step.
† Yes, I know, honestly what was I expecting from a story set in fairly immediate post-World War II England?