It’s been some time since I’ve been instantly beguiled by writing as beautiful as Sarah Winman’s. There is a lush, enchanting way she uses language that lulled me and drew me into this strange other world she creates. A ninety year old woman named Marvellous Ways lives in a near-deserted town in Cornwall. She goes for nude swims every day and tells tales of how her mother was a mermaid. This all sounds very whimsical, but as the novel progresses it shows how it is grounded in a much more serious reality. It’s 1947 and the country is still recovering from two world wars: “The triumph of two years ago hadn’t gained access to wallets or purses or homes. People were poor and the city was crumbling.” A soldier named Francis Drake returns from France with a letter from a dying soldier that he promised to deliver. Marvellous and Drake strike up an unlikely friendship which feels something like the pairing in the film Harold and Maude. They tell each other stories, riffle through the past and establish a warm kinship.
One of the most fascinating characters is named Missy Hall, the romantic love of Drake’s life. She remained in London throughout the war and her perspective of surviving through the blitz is strange and new. She developed a deep friendship with a woman named Jeanie. Together they find liberation through the upheaval in society and explore new sexual experiences in the dark corners of bomb shelters. There is a blunt handling of the emotional repercussions of sexual encounters: “Shame’s shame no matter what perfume you spray on it.” When the war ends its back to reality and Missy finds it hard to readjust or slip into the pre-war relationship she started with Drake. It’s a shame she doesn’t appear throughout the entire novel.
The central character is, of course, Marvellous herself whose radical perspective frequently disarmed me. She’s someone who prizes the stripped-down simplicity of the world over heedless progress: “Some things are best left untouched, she said. Tides rise and tides fall. That is perfection enough.” She communes with inanimate objects which sounds fanciful but comes across as a deep, meaningful conversation she’s having with herself more than the world around her. Over the course of the novel, we learn about the three great loves of her life. Her first lover was a woman, but rather than dwelling upon trying to define sexuality its refreshing how she moves from that to relationships with men without ponderous reflection or attributing any meaning to it. She’s also someone dealing with dementia and her struggle with the loss of memory is meaningfully related.
From the cover, this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up because the title and artwork make it seem frivolous. I was drawn to it more because of the endorsement from Patrick Gale whose writing I adore and respect. But there is something very interesting and meaningful going on in this novel. There are times when Winman’s writing does get too florid. While she’s mostly good at simultaneously giving the hard facts of reality alongside ornate musings upon life, there is a short section of wartime France which feels too fleeting and scantily-written to give the impact it needed. However, overall I was charmed by this novel and intrigued by Winman’s unique perspective of the world. “A Year of Marvellous Ways” is a refreshing read whose story I completely sank into.