A Year of Marvellous Ways is Sarah Winman’s second book. I read her first novel, When God Was a Rabbit, a few years ago, and I enjoyed it on the whole but I was left with some mixed feelings about it. I was a bit unsure about the whimsical nature of it, and while A Year of Marvellous Ways is also incredibly whimsical, I feel in this case the whimsy was used much more successfully.
Marvellous Ways is an eighty nine year old woman with a great affinity for nature. She worked as a midwife, and has a lot of strange, mystical qualities. I suppose the closest way to describe it would be to say that she knows how to read people, but there are small elements of magical realism to the story and to Marvellous’ character. She lives in Cornwall in a little caravan on the banks of a river, and it is implied that she found Drake trying to take his own life. Drake had returned from the Second World War to meet the girl he loves, but he is struggling to adapt to post-war life and was present when his lover (or so he believes) drowns herself in the Thames. Drake stays with Margaret while he recovers his health, both physically and mentally, and they form a really lovely friendship and reliance upon each other.
For a start, this book is absolutely beautiful (which is not a word I use lightly). I don’t just mean on the outside, although the cover is gorgeous, but the prose is so wonderfully lyrical that it was an absolute joy to read. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the ways in which nature is used and presented is really wonderful. If I could literally eat this book up I would, because it’s just so delightfully yummy. I enjoyed everything about it, but I especially loved seeing the development of Marvellous and Drake’s friendship, and how comfortable they grow around each other.
I’ve seen some reviews say that A Year of Marvellous Ways can be a bit tricky to read, and I suppose that’s true in a way. It’s a non-linear story and it’s not always entirely clear which parts are flashbacks or how long ago the flashbacks happened, but I didn’t find it to be a problem. Also Sarah Winman doesn’t use speech marks in the books to signify what’s being said or thought, and I know that made reading it tricky for some. It didn’t bother me though, because I didn’t feel like it mattered particularly whether I knew the difference between speech that was internal and speech that was spoken aloud. It’s such a whimsical book that it’s not one for dealing with specifics, and I don’t think it’s any the worse for it. The non-linear narrative and the lack of speech marks adds to the slightly oddball nature of the story. They’re stylistic choices which I think fit perfectly with the tone and style of the language, by which I mean both the choice of language and the way in which the language is used.
It’s hard to find anything more to say about A Year of Marvellous Ways, other than to recommend it wholeheartedly. I certainly don’t think it will suit everyone, but I think it’s worth taking a risk because you might end up loving it as much as I do. The descriptions all paint such a wonderful picture, and the characters of Drake and Marvellous are so tender and gentle, and their story is so moving. It might seem twee and idyllic but it’s a story about grief as much as anything else, and how to carry on living when the ones you love can’t. In a way I think the poetic nature of the writing could detract from the content and make it hard to see that there is actually a lot of substance to the story itself, but the language is such a key part of the book that it’s not surprising that it takes over. It’s not what you’d call a fast-paced book by any means, but it’s so comforting to read that I found it difficult to put it down. I’m already looking forward to rereading it so that I can immerse myself in the writing again, and I feel like the prose is going to stay with me for a long time, even if the particulars of the story don’t.