I read this book while on my holidays and effort was the keyword which came across. It felt like hard work, as if Winman had spent a great deal of time planning and thinking and considering, so much so that her fingerprints remain highly visible in each sentence. She kicks off her action in Cornwall, 1947 – surely a time when the world would have been receptive to fairytales. The titular character is Marvellous Ways, daughter to a mermaid but now grown old. Marvellous is waiting for something, and that something appears to be the arrival of Francis Drake (not that Francis Drake), a broken-hearted ex-serviceman on his way to deliver a letter and in search of solace.
This is not a classic novel with a beginning, middle and end – the narrative is fluid, Marvellous’ reminiscences dance back and forth and each of the characters’ full stories unfold gradually. Marvellous has lived a long life with loves aplenty and loss unforgettable. There are so many lovely phrases, such as Marvellous’ description of her first kiss which ‘lasts til dawn’, or how another character’s journey is long because they know that nobody is waiting for them. Winman’s three main characters are a cluster of orphans of murky origins, with Francis remarking that he has his father’s hands since he knows very well that they are not his mother’s.
Having been a long-term fan of 1940s fiction, I found Winman’s wanderings into the period rather odd. At first, it felt more as if she was making use of the period because it ruled out modern technology but then Winman roped in Missy, the somewhat damaged object of Francis’ affections. Missy’s shame over her wartime promiscuity mirrors Francis’ horror at what he witnessed in the war – the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root.
Marvellous’ isolation and old age make her a rambling narrator and her stories are clearly intended to be disorientating, but still, there was a sense of confusion about the way the novel connected up. The interweaving stories joined up in a way that felt too unconvincing, their very circularity displeasing. The way in which Winman had named her characters seemed too forced, too creative, too much like writing – one of them is even called Peace. I was unable to truly suspend my disbelief and lose myself in the novel, even though I could tell that Marvellous was intended to be a hypnotic narrator. It felt more than anything that Winman trying to be Angela Carter in this novel, that she was using fancy phrases and sensuous language to distract us from a book which at its core does not quite hang together.
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Published by Headline Book Publishing on June 18th 2015
Genres: 20th Century, Fiction, General, Magical Realism
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