When an author follows up a book called When God was a Rabbit with one called A Year of Marvellous Ways, potential readers are likely to be alerted to the fact that Sarah Winman is no ordinary author and these books are no ordinary books. The titles hint at something rather extraordinary and the discovery within the first few pages of this latest book that Marvellous Ways is actually the name of the protagonist amply confirms it. Even the opening line is a teaser, “So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting” because we do not know where “here” is, who “she “is or what she is “waiting” for. So most of the conventions of openings, that they root the reader in a time, a character and a place, are broken. Readers, therefore, are forewarned: this book will not yield its secrets quickly or easily and narrative conventions may be played around with. In short, you may have to work a little harder than you usually do!
All of which brings us to ‘magic realism’, a term which seems these days to be used as something of a catch-all for any writing that extends beyond the bounds of strict reality. And certainly Sarah Winman pushes at those bounds with Marvellous’ mother believed to have been a mermaid, bread baked to taste in accordance with the emotions of the baker and the face of a lover seen emerging in an egg white dissolved in water, to name but a few instances. Winman’s magic realism certainly leaves the everyday world behind but it does so from a hard core of emotional and literal reality, which makes it all the more successful in my view. The result is quirky rather than outrageously bizarre.
It is 1947 and Marvellous, now eighty nine, waits without knowing what or for whom she is waiting. It turns out to be Francis Drake, not the famed explorer but a war torn soldier on his way back to England via France with a letter he has agreed to deliver to the father of a fallen comrade. The war sits as a residue behind much of the novel and its impact has been vividly depicted earlier when another returned soldier shouts his surrender to a hermit crab (yes, really) and blasts his heart clean from his chest with his father’s shotgun.
The damage to Drake’s heart and psyche is not as extreme but there is still much work to be done if Marvellous is to heal him. She tells him stories of her own life and her own loves and these form a major part of the book. She is an immensely appealing character, dignified and wise, living close to nature in a caravan on a creek close to a chapel. Winman gradually unravels Marvellous’ past and slowly links appear between apparently disparate characters and strands of the narrative in a satisfying way.
A Year of Marvellous Ways is an extraordinary book. Winman writes beautifully, elegantly, imaginatively and poetically, and she has a good story to tell. I thoroughly enjoyed it and my daughter and wife absolutely loved it.
A longer version of this review appeared in The Star (Malaysia) www.star2.com/culture/books.