Review: Wild Spinning Girls is an insistently captivating novel
Cast as a novel about the secrets and history of female power, this is a long and languorous read which captures you quietly but surely. It’s neither a book crammed full of incident, nor does it have a sprawling cast of characters to animate its 350 pages but it coasts along on a quiet undertow of weather, displacements, revelations and tentative relationships.
It starts as Ida Llewellyn, a neurotic townie and thwarted ballerina loses her job in a bookshop but that is only the harbinger of much more tragic news when both her parents are killed in a freak accident in Paris when a runaway train hurtles through a wall and crushes them. As a consequence, Ida inherits a house in Wales called Ty Cwmwl, an isolated house besieged by black birds and permeated with the troubling sense of someone newly departed, a hint of a ghost, a creepiness which comes as twilight settles.
The solicitor who deals with her father’s affairs makes Wales sound like Ulan Bator, while others anticipate her moving to a magical place, ‘full of ghosts and mad poets.’ In the event there is an absence of such poets and a plenitude of ghosts and secrets.
Enter Heather Esyllt Morgan, a feral, fierce creation who acts as if she owns the place. It transpires that her mother Olwen lived in Ty Cwmwl and also died here and it may well be her shade that unsettles Ida so. Heather is a fabulous character right from the off, with eyes ‘a colour impossible to describe: the colour of rain, if rain had a colour.
“She smelled of apples and opportunity”. “Her clothes were a disguise: layers of grey and peat, green so drab it was almost black” while her skin is “the colour of a nut and overlaying her face was a scowl of irritation.”
To say that Ida and Heather fail to hit if off would be an understatement and the feral girl’s habit of turning up without so much as a by your leave irritates Ida as much as the broken bone in her foot which puts paid to her dancing career. But Heather has inherited her mother’s gifts of wisdom and herbal healing and an ointment of comfrey helps mend Ida’s foot, even as the rift between the two women starts to disappear, albeit in fits and starts.
Settling into rural life is also fraught with difficulty for Ida as the villagers are a tight nest of gossips and the local shop is far from being Waitrose. Then the car won’t start and the boiler doesn’t boil and discontent seeps into Ida’s life to complement the dankness of the weather and the dampness of the nearby moor.
Life looks up when Ida meets Llinos, a ballet teacher in a nearby seaside town and they are physically drawn to each other but Ida misspeaks at every opportunity and almost destroys their relationship before it has even started.
The tensions mount, the Hitchcockian black birds caw and then a real secret is revealed in the form of an old letter, sequestered for years under lock and key in an old bureau. This sets in train a chain of events that tests all three women, placing them under real strain as Ida and Heather find they have more in common than they ever thought.
Reading Carol Lovekin’s insistently captivating novel reminded me of the American author Alice Hoffman’s works, not least her classic Practical Magic although here the magic is quieter, less weird or exotic, as if it always belonged. With its witness trees and angry ghosts, its dislocated mothers’ voices and powerful words that hover “like a hungry kestrel, ready to strike” this is a quietly transporting work.
It takes you into the back of beyond and then just a little further to an oddly plausible or plausibly odd world, where girls and hearts and luminous moments are forever spinning wildly.
Wild Spinning Girls is published by Honno Press and can be bought here.
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