Today I am delighted to welcome Rosy Thornton to the blog. Rosy’s new book, a collection of short stories set in Suffolk is garnering wonderful reviews and having read the first story I am more than inclined to agree with them. A full review will appear on the blog once I have read the book. Meanwhile I will hand you over to Rosy who has written a lovely guest post about unearthing the past and its effects.
When I was seven years old, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I buried treasures in the back garden sand pit and dug them up again with an old spoon. At eighteen, I spent my gap year before university volunteering on the French urban rescue archaeology programme – a scheme, as far as I could see, which essentially provided slave labour, digging out the foundations for prospective new developments on sites of putative historic interest. But even those months laying a pickaxe to mid-twentieth century concrete did not quite succeed in curing me of my fascination with unearthing the past.
Now, in my fifties, I find that the preoccupation has reasserted itself, as a recurrent strand in my collection of short stories, Sandlands (to be published by Sandstone Press on 21st July).
I have always loved the ghost stories of M.R. James, written in the years on either side of the First World War. In one story, ‘A Warning to the Curious’, James tells of a young antiquarian who searches for, and digs up, the last of three Anglo-Saxon crowns, said to have been buried on the East Anglian coast to protect the land from invaders. For this despoiling of the past, he is pursued to his death by the ghost of the man whose mission it was to guard the crown. In what seems a particularly unfair twist, the ghost gets our hero even after he’s taken the hint and reburied the crown.
The point, I’ve always assumed, is that the secrets of the past, once uncovered, cannot readily be put back. That notion took hold of my imagination, and inspired me to write a story in homage to James, entitled (appropriately enough) ‘A Curiosity of Warnings’.
There is no doubt that when the earth is disturbed, things long buried can rise up to the surface, unanticipated and unbidden. There is a rare plant species I read about, the sand catchfly, which appears from time to time in the dunes and sandy grasslands of coastal Suffolk. Its seeds can lay dormant for decades, until some plough or earthworks, some agitation of the soil, shakes it awake to germinate and flower. A perfect metaphor, I thought, for how past grief resurfaces when something comes along to churn up the surface of our emotions. ‘All the Flowers Gone’ explores this idea directly – as also, indirectly, do several other stories in the book.
My youthful archaeological leanings meant I had a particular interest in accounts of the dig at Sutton Hoo – close to my Suffolk home where the stories in Sandlands are all set. Excavation in 1940 of one of a series grass-covered mound revealed an Anglo-Saxon burial ship, complete with its stash of treasure. But the image which lodged most firmly in my mind was that of the ship’s wooden hull, and how the timbers turned to dust as soon as they were exposed to air. It set me thinking of how some things seem real and whole and solid but are actually just a memory, a chimera, the ghost of themselves. The final story in my book, entitled ‘Mackerel’, ends with just such an image.
It’s all a far cry, perhaps, from digging up toy jewellery in the sand pit with a spoon. But there’s something about things hidden and found, things buried and unearthed, which still set my imagination racing.
Sandlands (Sandstone Press, release date 21st July 2016)
From the white doe appearing through the dark wood to the blue-winged butterflies rising in a cloud as a poignant symbol of happier times, the creatures of the Suffolk landscape move through Rosy Thornton’s delicate and magical collection of stories. The enigmatic Mr Napier is feeding a fox rescued from the floods; an owl has been guarding a cache of long lost letters; a nightingale’s song echoes the sound of a loved voice; spiralling rooks recall the dogfights of wartime Spitfire pilot. Through the landscape and its creatures, the past is linked to the present, and generations of lives are intertwined.
Rosy Thornton is a Fellow and Tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and a lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge. She has published five novels (including Ninepins which won the East Anglian Book Awards prize for fiction in 2012), and Sandlands is her first short story collection. She divides her time between Cambridge and the Suffolk sandlings.
Her books to date are as follows:
More Than Love Letters (Headline, 2007)
Hearts and Minds (Headline Review, 2008)
Crossed Wires (Headline Review, 2009)
The Tapestry of Love (Headline Review, 2010)
Ninepins (Sandstone Press, 2012)
Sandlands (Sandstone Press, 2016)
My author website is here:
Link to Sandlands on Amazon:
For review copies or press information, please contact my publisher’s publicity officer, Keara Donnachie (firstname.lastname@example.org).