Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

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39 thoughts on “Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

  1. This sounds absolutely marvellous, I must say – right up my street. It is wonderful when an author has a real knowledge and passion for a community or landscape, it really shows in the writing. Great review, FF!

    • Thanks, Lucy! 🙂 Her knowledge of the area and its history shone through, as did her love for it. And I loved the variety in the stories – enough humour and spooky stuff to break up the feeling of melancholy…

  2. I visited this area once, so long ago that fishing was still the big employer, so I will be interested to read this collection.

  3. This does sound like a fine collection of stories, FictionFan. I’m glad it has a sense of cohesiveness to it. I think that makes a collection all the better. And the stories themselves sound very much worth the read.

    • Yes, I like when a collection has some kind of connection too, but, like this one, with enough variety to prevent the stories having a sense of sameness. And some of the stories in this are really stand-outs… good stuff! 🙂

  4. I’ve read a number of strong reviews for this collection and it’s already on my tbr list. Good to have the confirmation that it’s worth a read 🙂

    • It definitely deserves its spot on your TBR – the combination of excellent writing and interesting stories made it a real pleasure to read. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 🙂

  5. We did this as a book club read to general acclaim. The ghost story took us nicely by surprise! One of our favourites was the Nightingale’s return and yes it did have the dreaded twist but in that case I rather enjoyed being wrongfooted !

    • The ghost story is great, isn’t it? And not at all what I was expecting either. I can see how this would work really well for a bookclub – so many different themes to discuss. Yes, I liked the Nightingale story too – in fact, from memory, I think that’s the one I took the quote from. Some of the endings worked well – it was just occasionally I felt they were a little too contrived…

  6. FF, you had me with the picture of the barn owl!! I’m glad you picked that story among your favorites just because of the owl. I haven’t read this collection, but it does sound interesting. Sometimes, a short story is just the thing when one is pressed for time!

    • I’ve got into the habit of often reading a short story just before sleeping, especially if the main book I’m reading is a bit heavy or dark. There’s lots of lovely wildlife and nature in this collection and she’s great at describing it… 🙂

  7. I don’t often choose to read short story collections, but I read this book last year and really enjoyed it. Looking back at my review, the stories I had picked out as favourites were All the Flowers Gone, The Witch Bottle, Curlew Call and Mackerel.

    • It was your review and Ali’s that persuaded me to read this one, so thank you! I liked The Witch Bottle too – I liked the way she incorporated folklore and superstitions into several of the stories, in fact, plus some genuinely scary stuff. 🙂

    • Yes, I like when a collection is linked like this, rather than just lots of unconnected stories. A short story at bedtime can be more relaxing than stopping halfway through a novel, I find, especially if the novel is exciting…

  8. Yours isn’t the first review of this short-story collection by Rosy Thornton that has made me think this is one collection that I’d enjoy. I don’t tend to go for short stories on the whole but I really do like the sound of this one, particularly the folk-lore feeling within the contemporary stories. Another one for the list 😉

    • I always say I don’t like short stories much, but when they’re connected like these ones are, they feel almost like a halfway point between shorts and a novel. Plus, these are really well written and several of them are quite emotional – lots of stuff about mothers and daughters. I suspect you may well enjoy this one if you get a chance to fit it in… 😉

    • Some of the twists worked well, but a few felt a bit too contrived for my taste. But the unease was done brilliantly, usually subtly but sometimes heading towards downright spooky! And a bit of humour to lighten it all up – I suspect you might enjoy these… 🙂

    • I reckon you’ll enjoy it – the writing is great, and there’s enough variety amongst the stories that some at least of them are almost certain to appeal. In fact, every review I’ve seen has highlighted different stories, I think – usually a good sign… 🙂

  9. Based on your review, I would assume you were a great fan of Annie Dillard! I, too, love stories that include wilderness as its own character. However, when I saw the film Wild, which is based on the Cheryl Strayed memoir, I was sad that they include a fox that ran through the story. It was a ham-handed metaphor for “your mother is always watching you because she loves you, even when she’s dead.”

    • I don’t know Annie Dillard at all, but looking her up on Amazon she should probably be on my list. I don’t read a lot of nature writing, but I like to go there occasionally. Ha! Yes, sometimes they do like to whack you over the head with a metaphor, don’t they? Metaphorically speaking, of course… 😉

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