BOOK REVIEW: Folk by Zoe Gilbert

If the name Zoe Gilbert isn’t familiar to you, where have you been? Up until this point, Gilbert has made a name for herself in the world of short stories. For years, her writing has appeared in anthologies and won prizes, including the 2014 Costa Short Story Award. Her talent for short stories explains why her debut novel, Folk, is so highly anticipated. It also explains why it’s so unbelievably good.

The novel is set in Neverness, an island village far from the world we live in. Like all classic fairytales, the book opens with a map. The pages are lined with seductive descriptions of the wilderness. One minute we’re ‘below the prickly forest with its flickers of yellow petal’, and the next ‘the air is riddled with spiteful shadows’. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the world Gilbert builds.

‘Days are shrinking, nights spreading. Taste the fire and salt in the air.’

There is no one central character in Folk. Gilbert lets multiple stories unfold and overlap like tree branches, each chapter written about a different character. The first to be introduced is Crab, who puffs and pants his way through the Gorse Maze in search of a ribbon left by one of the many mysterious girls in Neverness. Within pages, other boys creep into the tale with the same burning mission. Each is prepared to do whatever it takes to be with the girl of their dreams.

‘All the girls want their kiss to be the reddest: a kiss from a boy who has dived so deep for her arrow that his lips have been pricked into a bloody pincushion.’

When revealing the girls, Gilbert does a lot with a little. She uses brief, but pointed descriptions. We are presented with Werrity Prowd and her ‘sly’ eyes. We meet Plum, who we find out is an ‘orphan’, and Madden, who is ‘the stable girl’. It doesn’t take long to realise that there is something off about these girls. They don’t stick together. Instead of mutual empowerment, they engage in mutual competition. They don’t fight for one another, but with one another. And the saddest part? This is all too relatable. In a setting that seems nothing like ours on the outside, Gilbert manages to capture what is inherently ours on the inside.

‘The wind drums its song at the door all night, a beat for the devil to dance to, leaving the prints of hooves around the house.’

A book that follows different stories and folk tales is a unique concept. However, it isn’t always easy to follow. I’ll admit, there were times throughout the book when I felt lost in a maze of backstories, and other times when the chapter changed before I was ready to stop hearing about a certain character. Here’s a piece of advice. When reading, don’t worry too much about catching every last detail. Instead, admire Gilbert’s process. Let your eyes glide over the way she crafts her characters and savour her language.

Despite Folk being a novel in its own right, Gilbert’s origins as a short story writer are clear. Her attention to detail is impeccable, and her writing resembles the lyrics of a song. There is the sense that every word has been picked with two delicate fingers. Each is a thread in a piece of silk. Nothing feels jarring or out of place. Gilbert’s language is the flesh of a cherry in which she has already taken out the pip.

‘I hear the sound from his mouth, a sort of snort as wild as a bull, and that is what makes my feet move then, but I am slower and slower as in a nightmare, and when I reach the river it is swollen.’

In such a tumultuous and unstable world, it’s easy to lose your sense of magic. In many ways, this book is being published at the perfect time. Gilbert’s world might be dark and mysterious, but there is something enchanting within this novel. Not only will you not be able to put it down, but you won’t stop thinking about it for days after it’s done. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Zoe Gilbert

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Zoe Gilbert’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. Her story ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ won the Costa Short Story Award 2014. Her work has also won prizes from Cinnamon Press, Lightship, and the British Fantasy Society amongst others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on her first folklore-inspired collection as part of her PhD on the short story at Chichester University. She runs a writers’ critique group in London and co-hosts the Word Factory short story club.

Folk is available from Bloomsbury Publishing here.

Review by Alice Kouzmenko

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