Rosy Thornton’s debut short story collection, Sandlands, is a collection of sixteen stories, each of which is set in Suffolk, an English county bordering the North Sea. The county is a low-lying one with a few hills, extensive wetlands, and a long coastline, and Thornton uses many of its physical features as key elements of her stories. Too, the county is filled with historical significance, and almost all of the sixteen stories link the county’s historic past with its present.
I have long admired short story writers with the ability to construct believable little worlds and populate those worlds with complex characters, all within the limited number of pages and words they allow themselves. That process always reminds me a bit of working a complex puzzle of sorts, and Rosy Thornton managed to solve the puzzle more times than not in her Sandlands collection.
There are stories here of witches from centuries past who still have the power to kill, World War II soldiers who spend the duration of their war as POWs in Suffolk, ancient churches still being worshiped in today, and women walking the same paths that their mothers and grandmothers walked and biked decades earlier. There are stories of good ghosts, and stories of the scarier sort of ghost. Some of the stories are funny, some are very sad, and some are nostalgically heart-wrenching – such as the last story in the collection, “Mackerel,” in which an elderly grandmother eagerly awaits a visit from her young-adult granddaughter as she prepares the young woman’s favorite dinner.
As in any collection of short stories, it is only natural that I have my favorites, such as “Nightingale’s Return” in which an Italian man comes to England to see with his own eyes the farm on which his prisoner-of-war father was forced to work for much of World War II. Another is “Curlew Call,” the story of a young woman who decides to spend her gap year in service to an elderly wheelchair-bound woman who lives alone in an isolated house on the coast. When the old woman is hospitalized and the teenager finds herself living alone in the intimidating old house, she manages to reconstruct the old woman’s tragic past through old pictures and newspaper clippings. What she reveals is not at all what she, or the reader, expects.
Then there’s my favorite story of all, “The Watcher of Souls,” featuring the barn owl that serves as the inspiration for the book’s cover photo. In this one, a woman is able to track an owl she encounters on her morning walks back to its nest and begins to explore the detritus at the base of the owl’s nesting tree. Expecting to find nothing but the tiny remains of the owl’s meals, she is surprised to find instead a bundle of letters that have been hidden there for decades. But what she finds next turns into the biggest surprise – and shock – of all.
Sandlands is a fine collection of highly atmospheric stories that reflect on how closely the modern world is still tied to the generations that preceded it. It is about family and reminds that we are who we are because of those who came before us and prepared the way. Readers with a fondness for well-constructed, more literary short stories are going to enjoy and appreciate Rosy Thornton’s Sandlands.
For more on Rosy Thornton and her work, please visit her website.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)