There are so many things to say about this book. Each time I sat down with my cup of tea and began another story was like stepping onto a country lane. Fields and forest feature prominently as a backdrop to tales that range from mythical to biblical and downright spooky. And at one delightful point I realized that these stories are joined by a thread of community. On a few occasions characters are mentioned in more than one story, and regardless of the story, if villagers are popping over to the pub they'll be at The Ship Inn. As you read you form an image of what the Suffolk landscape is like, learn how different generations view its past, and discover that sometimes no matter how modern a village has become, legend and superstition still hold a firm grip.
One of the most admirable aspects of a short story (in the hands of a good writer) is the ability to stir emotion in so short a time frame. The first story The White Doe is eleven pages long but by the last page my t-shirt was pulled up to my chin and I was filled with dread. By the fourth story The Watcher of Souls I had resorted to a horrible habit of using my t-shirt to wipe away tears. Well who wants to put down a book to fetch a tissue at a moment like that? Another story The Level Crossing is about a young woman who is pregnant and quite sure she's going to have to go it alone. While out jogging she recalls the story of an ancestor who was killed by a train and wonders what the little girl might have seen or felt. As the signal lights announce an approaching train, Isobel contemplates an immediate resolve to the stream of doubt regarding her ability to move forward as a single parent. By the end of the story I was holding my breath in terror, afraid of what would happen next.
I read the stories in Sandlands in the order they fell and loved not knowing which era I would find myself in next. Whether writing about brothers flying missions during World War II, contemporary bell ringers, or witches from the 1500s, Rosy Thornton's meticulous research delivers authenticity to her stories without weighing them down in detail.
The final story is called Mackerel. I admit to thinking 'you're going to finish this fabulous book with a story about fish?'. But as is so often the case, where you start out is rarely where you end up, and such was the case here. I finished this story, and the book, welling up with tears...yes, again. I don't want to give anything away but will share a sample of a paragraph from Mackerel so beautiful, and so typical of Rosy's way with words, that I read it several times...
'This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it's a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it's a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it's as golden yellow as any treasure island beach. Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left. Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges. You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sandbars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea.'
Thank you, Rosy, for sending me a copy of Sandlands. You are a talented writer, and while you really didn't need my humble opinion in promoting this wonderful collection, I am so very glad your book found its way to me. Sneaking an hour to read, here and there, while Kip slept off his horseplay, was like escaping to a tranquil place - even if you did bring me to tears several times.
Blaxhall Church by David Gillingwater