by Sarah Winman
The story of the last year of Marvellous Weeks, ninety years old and still bathing naked in the creek. Set (I’m guessing it’s never stated) in the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. It’s not an easy one to get into, with disparate characters introduced in stages, giving the opening chapters a jerky feel. The tale does not flow at the start and I can understand how some have found this hard to stick with and given up. It requires slow reading. It needs to be savoured. Stay with it: the story settles when the central characters come together to play their roles and a lush, eloquent, lyrical tale emerges. There’s Francis Drake, returned from the war to find then lose his one true love, his heart healed by Marvellous and her gift for the rhythms of nature and life. There’s Peace, whose moods can be tasted in the bread she bakes, loaves filled with names, songs and memories. Ned the fisherman is ‘Cornish through and through’ and woos, not with flowers, but bunches of whiting and oysters with ‘the coolness, the saltiness of a prince’s kiss’. And Marvellous herself, of course, a curious old woman who bathes naked and lives alone in a gypsy caravan, ‘part woman, part child and neither knew what to do with the other’, living in a landscape ‘rich with leaf mulch and salt mud’, where dawn winds blister across corrugated sands. Of ‘dirt grass moor and sand, a whole history of the Peninsula laid down one on top of the other, like fossils, like prayers.’ The poetry of the writing is, above all, what lifts this book and makes it sing. The description is lavish, prosaic and literary, but this never stalls the storytelling. A deeply moving tale told almost entirely in flashback, peppered with gentle twists and small surprises that became (after that admittedly very slow start) absolutely compelling. One bit of the last chapter made me sigh rather (it is a bit pat) but Marvellous’ final parting more than made up for it. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read. A beautiful end to a beautiful novel.