This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all.
Sandlands is a beautifully written collection of sixteen short stories, all of which share a common setting: a small English village on the coast of Suffolk. I’m not usually a reader of short stories (my blog title should be a clue) but I do enjoy them from time to time – and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed reading this particular collection. The problem I sometimes have with short stories is that they tend to lack the plot development and depth of character I look for in full-length novels. I often find them unsatisfying and…well, too short.
Sandlands is not like that. The stories are the perfect length – not too long and not too short – and each one feels complete. Although they share some similar themes such as the beauty of nature and the relationships people have with the area in which they live, the stories are also quite varied. Some are written in the first person and some in the third, some are set entirely in the present and some take us into the past, some are sad and some are funny. I’m not going to comment on all sixteen of them here, but will pick out a few which I found particularly interesting.
One of my favourites was All the Flowers Gone, a poignant story which explores the bond between three generations of women: Poppy, a botanist who finds a rare flower growing at a disused air base; her mother, Rosa, who campaigned against nuclear weapons at the same base in the 1980s; and finally, her grandmother, Lilian, who worked there during the 1940s and fell in love with a bomber pilot. I loved the way the lives of these three women were linked not only to each other but also to one specific location and to the flowers which grew there.
Another story in which the past begins to merge with the present is The Witch Bottle, a tale of love and revenge which unfolds when a woman moves into an old house and discovers a connection with Patience Spall, a girl accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Like many of the stories in the book, this one has a touch of the supernatural. While I wouldn’t describe Sandlands as a book of ghost stories in the traditional sense, some do have a ghostly atmosphere and a sense that more is going on than meets the eye.
I also enjoyed the final two stories in the collection. Curlew Call is written from the perspective of a young woman who decides to spend a year working as a companion to Agnes, an artist who is confined to a wheelchair. The narrator loves nature and is captivated by the Suffolk landscape with its salt marshes, mudflats and reed beds and the distinctive sound of the curlews calling. As she settles into her new job and home, she makes some surprising discoveries about her elderly employer. The following story, Mackerel, also looks at the relationship between two women, this time a grandmother and granddaughter: Hattie, in her twenties, who has a degree and has travelled across Europe, and eighty-nine-year-old Ganny (as she is known) who has spent her whole life living in a small fishing village and knows everything there is to know about mackerel.
These are just some of the wonderful stories to be found in Sandlands. Others that stand out include Whispers, the story of Dr Whybrow, an academic who buys a Martello tower on the coast, and The Watcher of Souls, where an owl guards a secret stash of love letters hidden in the woods. I wish I could tell you about the rest of the stories as well, as I found something to enjoy and admire in every one of them, but this review is already long enough and I need to leave something for other readers to discover for themselves!
I have previously read and enjoyed one of Rosy Thornton’s other books, The Tapestry of Love, so I was delighted to be offered a copy of Sandlands by the author for review. Many thanks, Rosy!