Myth and magic in darkest Wales: Ghostbird [Review]
Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin
One thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time.
Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #15BooksofSummer reading list includes a title using one of my dreaded words. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world?
Ghostbird draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.
Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.
Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.
In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.
Women with secrets
All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl.
Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili.
Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship with her mother.
Close relationship with nature
The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.
Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven.
Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom.
Introducing Carol Lovekin
Carol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along
Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.
Why I read Ghostbird
A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here).
When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.
22 thoughts on “Myth and magic in darkest Wales: Ghostbird [Review]”
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I don’t like ghosty books either although my worst kind is the one narrated by a dead person. So well done for persisting and it does sound really well done!
I actually enjoy reading about ghosts, but I do like horror/thriller/suspense, especially in the fall months leading up to Halloween.
This book sounds ALOT like The Good People by Hannah Kent-a women who’s adult child and husband has died, lives in the countryside, and lives beside a woman with a deep connection to the spirit world! hmmm
I bet Hannah Kent doesn’t weave in the Welsh myths though….
No, I think you’re right about that, although to be honest I really can’t remember!
Isn’t it amazing when a novel overcomes a dislike we might have for certain genres! I love that!
I’m perfectly happy reading about ghosts. I like being scared in a way that doesn’t involve human-on-human violence. I mean, a ghost used to be a human, one could argue, but still. No, the one thing that will make me turn up my nose at a book is any plot that hinges on everyone having secrets! Ha! I know. Every book these days is just full of small towns and everyone has secrets. I think my issue is there is a line between privacy and secrets, and authors are really pushing the boundaries. Also, I am a totally spaghetti colander when it comes to secrets (note that I mean gossipy secrets, not private information). Maybe that’s why I don’t like books with secrets as the catalyst?
Yep there are scores of books around which hinge on secrets. Some do it much better than others of course. I’ve learned yet another new expression from you – a spaghetti colander!!
I think some people call them a strainer, but colander is used more in the Midwest, which I know you’ve traveled to for work. What is a good Welsh expression you can teach me?
I think a strainer is wire mesh and a colander is a pressed steel bowl with holes. But then I’m no cook.
You get the prize though for being right……
The colander is something I definitely got at a Tupperware party 😂
Here’s a silly one ….. “I’ll be there now in a minute”
I LOVE IT! Another Midwestern one about time is “couple three,” as in “I’ll be there in a couple three hours.” Now, does that mean 2-3 hours or two sets of three, as in 6 hours? No one agrees! 😂
We could build our own dictionary of international phrases at this rate . I’ll give you another
” I’m not being funny but…. ” (always followed by something serious)
if you have a friend from South Wales you can now consider them to be your ‘butty”. That word also means
a sandwich with a filling of chips (french fries to you). Confusing isn’t it!
I think my favorite new phrase that I hear young people in the U.S. saying is “Sometimes it be that way.” Indeed.
I agree with you about ghosts and spirits – totally offputting. I know writers like to reference older cultures and older aspects of their own culture, but I avoid them when I can. (On a different topic altogether, how do the Welsh feel about Donald Trup’s reference to the ‘Prince of Whales’).
Well as a nation we do tend to have a bit of a thin skin when we think someone is being critical of the Welsh. In this case though his comment was so ridiculous that everyone is just thinking how stupid he is. Do a search on Twitter for #princeofwhales and you get some hilarious images….
This isn’t my kind of book usually either, yet I really enjoyed it. I loved how the more magical aspects combined with an appreciation of the natural world. I bought a copy for my sister and she loved it, she also loved Carol Lovekin’s second novel which I haven’t read yet.
In that case you might well enjoy Snow Sisters….