‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ by Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert and I co-founded the Word Factory short story club in 2014, and she went on to publish Folk in 2018 – which was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It’s billed as a novel, but I read it as a luminous collection of fifteen interlinked, spell-like allegorical stories, set on the remote island village of Neverness. Folk is full of poetry, conjuring up the scent of gorse, the island’s craggy coastline and beguiling characters, such as Verlyn, a boy born with a wing for an arm. The story I particularly connected with is the melancholic ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’, which won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014. It’s about a fishwife named Ervet, who is newly married, but she cannot let go of the desire for her old life. Ervet’s mother-in-law scolds her: “‘What,’ she asks Ervet, ‘have you been finding to do all the long day that’s more pressing than making spick and span for your husband?’” Ervet’s husband is a fisherman, who often leaves for long voyages on the sea, so Ervet dangerously makes references to hares – an animal with which she has a deep connection – as a way to keep him close. “It was one of the first lessons in Turpin’s house: no speaking of hares, no thinking of them, even, if Ervet wished her new husband to return safe in his fishing boat. A hare is the worst bad luck for a fisherman.” Ervet becomes a reluctant mother and goes on to reject her baby (continually referred to as a fish) – and the crisis point of the story is reached when Ervet takes the baby away, to be wrapped in the skins of her beloved hares. Zoe’s writing draws deeply on Angela Carter and the Brothers Grimm to conjure a magical and murky world. 

First published on Word Factory, 2014 and available to read here. Collected in Folk, Bloomsbury, 2018

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