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BOOK REVIEW: Folk by Zoe Gilbert

| 22 May 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Folk by Zoe Gilbert

March 2018
Hardcover, $35.00
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Short Stories / Speculative Fiction


Every year they gather, while the girls shoot their arrows and the boys hunt them out. The air is riddled with spiteful shadows – the wounds and fears and furies of a village year.

On a remote and unforgiving island lies a village unlike any other: Neverness. A girl is snatched by a water bull and dragged to its lair, a babe is born with a wing for an arm and children ask their fortunes of an oracle ox. While the villagers live out their own tales, enchantment always lurks, blighting and blessing in equal measure. 

Folk is a dark and sinuous debut circling the lives of one generation. In this world far from our time and place, the stories of the islanders interweave and overlap, their own folklore twisting fates and changing lives. 

A captivating, magical and haunting debut novel of breathtaking imagination, from the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award. 


Folk is neither a novel or simply a collection of short stories, but some kind of magical hybrid of the two. Each story could essentially be read as a standalone, but a greater appreciation is found when you read the whole collection.

Within these 234 pages, you will find fifteen stories set on the same fictional island of Neverness, a place steeped in tradition and in stories.

We see the progression of a generation of kids in this town. We start at the gorse maze right of passage, in which girls shoot arrows with embroidered ribbons attached into the maze of thorns and boys dive in after them. We see them as they pair off… or not. Get married… or not. Have kids… or not. We see deaths, and struggles, and heartache and happiness, and the collection wraps up with the next generation, the kids of the original lot, going through the gorse maze to start the whole process again.

It really does feel like we’ve seen their lives unfold, but in snippets across little more than two-hundred pages. It can feel at times like the story was cut short and you would like to know more… but more often than not you will spot a familiar name in another story down the line.

Of particular note in the collection for this reader were:

  • Swirling Cleft – in which we see the Neverness version of a selkie, through the eyes of her human daughter. Her human daughter who feels a little out of sorts since her mother gave birth to a selkie baby that needs extra care while living on land.
  • Thunder Cracks – it is revealed through dual narration just what goes on when a certain character sleepwalks.
  • Earth is Not for Eating – is a gorgeous and heartbreaking little story in which it is clear to the reader what is going on, but the child narrator watches the events with an endearing kind of confusion.
  • Long Have I Lain Beside the Water – which operates well as a standalone story, and is definitely one of the spookier stories in the collection. People of particular skill on the fiddle must go on a quest to find their “spirit” and might uncover unexpected secrets in the process.

This collection is not for everyone, and some have expressed confusion or dismay at the format, but if you go in knowing that this is a story of large scope told in small snippets, you are bound to be on the right wavelength.

For a debut novel/collection, Folk is definitely impressive, and Gilbert’s talent shines through in the telling of each and every story, but it’s when you read the collection as a whole that you really come to appreciate the beauty of what she offers.





Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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