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Review: Only May by Carol Lovekin

12 Jun 2022 5 minute read
Only May by Carol Lovekin is published by Honno.

Jon Gower

The successor to Carol Lovekin’s Wales Book of the Year shortlisted Wild Spinning Girls is similarly set in a richly evoked countryside, with pink drifts of hawthorn blossom, cuckoos in the graveyard and owls breaking the silence of night-time woods.

At the heart of this achingly tender and deeply affecting novel is 17-year-old May, born in the month of the same name and possessed of an uncanny ability to tell, without a shadow of doubt, when someone is lying.

Be it a fib, a fallacy, a white lie or something more deeply mendacious, she can tell to certainty that it is not the truth. But as one of the poets she enjoys reading, Emily Dickinson has it, ‘Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.’

It’s an uncommon talent May normally hides as people already think she’s different, often being described as wild while she thinks she might be a changeling, a child substituted or stolen by the fairies for a human.

Her hair is ‘ribbon-resistant and reckless,’ the ‘blonde in a sea of dark heads’ in the school photograph and she gets into trouble with other girls, on one occasion facing down a bullying sort by challenging her honesty, especially as her opponent is sporting a stolen ring which May recognizes.

She also gets into trouble with Mrs Hill, her teacher whose ‘God-led, miscellaneous mantras left no space for the business of nature’ or for ‘good magic.’

Good magic: there’s a lot of that in this book and at times it’s very sorely needed.

Surreptitious dalliances

May lives at home, a house which is ‘old and solid and it smells of Mansion polish and bread’ with her mother Esme and also works with her in a local hotel, which is run by the redoubtable and somewhat aloof Mrs Cadwallader.

May’s father Billy was badly wounded in the war, which led to a leg being amputated and left him beset by nightmares which emanate from a ‘dark, dark place.’

Her free-spirited, motorcycle-riding aunt Ffion lives close nearby in a wood burner warmed caravan where she reads tea leaves, has surreptitious dalliances with and is happy to give her niece May plenty of advice for free:

Moonlight picks a path through the garden, laying vague pockets of silver on the path, giving nothing away. I know the way though, light or dark. Under my feet I sense everything Ffion has told me about the ancient past is real: old roads, older dwellings, land made of forest and grassland, carthorse footprints as big as plates, fossilised beneath layer upon layer of soil. Poacher bones, dragon bones, treasure trove, the bones of dead witches.

She calls it the permanence.

‘You have to hold onto the permanence, May.’

But the past isn’t just a matter of palimpsests and permanence: it’s also a place where secrets lie, waiting to be unearthed and with the power to overturn or otherwise dismantle a young woman’s life.

In May’s case there’s something about her birthday which doesn’t ring true, confirmed when she catches out her employer in what seems like a very simple lie.

I’ll leave it at that, tantalisingly avoiding even the licence of a spoiler alert but also because the power of the book comes from the deft and sure-handed unravelling of a long-held and complicated secret.

Rich encounters

But along the way May has some rich encounters, not least with Amélie Griffin, partner of Mrs Cadwallader and an avid plant collector and gifted botanical illustrator.

She entrusts May with the task of tracking down the uncommon snake’s head fritillary while she herself is room-bound with a bad ankle.

The friendship between May and the ‘half-French lesbian who went to art school’ is tenderly drawn, as Miss Griffin offers her companionship, tea, bookish conversation and glimpses of a world beyond the hawthorn hedges she is so familiar with, or perhaps confined by.

This is a crisply written but amply wise novel, jam-packed with all manner of lies and truths ( and so much in keeping with the times, when truth is relative and lies so often flagrant) but also full of quiet but insistent magics.

Benign ghosts

May, for instance, has a special relationship with bees, almost to the point of tipping the novel into magical realist territory. They come to her, sometimes at night, in unbidden swarms which whisper to her and bring her good dreams.

Flowers, too, naturally enchant her while there are benign ghosts in the kitchens and domestic divinations.

But she is also on the cusp of adulthood, with all its challenges and uncertainties and May, for one doesn’t like rites of passage, any more than she enjoys the taste of the gin she and a fellow chambermaid chance upon when cleaning a guest’s bedroom.

Only May is ultimately a tale of redemption and understanding, although along the way it certainly puts you through the emotional wringer.

The set of Russian dolls she is given on her birthday come to resemble her own uncertain and dislocated identity, one doll hidden within and by the other, never knowing when you’ll come to the final one, the one that lies deep within, enfolded and protected by all the rest.

Only May by Carol Lovekin is published by Honno.

You can buy it from all good bookshops.

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