Book review: A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)
(image courtesy Hachette Australia)


It is a rare thing indeed to come across a book that not only possesses engaging, beguiling characters in a world that seems as real as anything physically before you but which tells their story with a lyricism and poetry so exquisite that you stop every paragraph or so to marvel at its bewitchingly beautiful writing.

And that marvellously doesn’t sound pretentious or overly-pronounced but authentic and real with a dash of the sort of otherworldiness and magic that many of us wish routinely came with everyday life.

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, author When God Was a Rabbit, is such a book, richly told in ways so breathtakingly heartfelt and lovely that you wish you could stay in its richly-wrought world, communing with its quirky but thoughtfully intense characters forever.

Alas, all books must end but while you are in the middle of Winman’s ode to connectedness, healing and musings on whether it is possible to experience great heartache and pain and move on through life, you are deep in a world where the lost are not spared pain but find their way through it, where hope and romance find you in the least expected and most imaginative of ways and where your past is not a determinant of your future but simply a part of you that is carried forward by life in all its manifest, contrary complexity.

“He watched her doze. The silence oozed and dripped as thickly as syrup and emotion caught like pollen in his throat. He became aware of the majesty of the landscape, of the hard work and lives that had toiled before, hands that had left dirt and blood on spades and cups. And there, a bee clinging to the pink trumpet head of a foxglove, not resting, not feasting, but dead. A connectedness to all, that’s what felt. A rare earthed feeling of belonging. A burst of sunlight fell upon trails of shimmering web, linking all – the dead, the living – to the earth.”
(P. 219)

A Year of Marvellous Ways is then an ode to life – to the good, the bad and the downright, magically-tinged ordinary, every deliciously-executed word a reminder that life becomes what you make of it, that its multitudinous facets can be shaped by perception, by attitude and by a willingness to not consider the game over because you are sent a curveball or three hundred.

Centering on a nearly 90 year old woman, Marvellous Ways, who has grown up in a small backwater corner of the Cornish Coast in a village lost past its prime, her only company ghosts and memories and her memories, many of which are failing but which remain vivid and entrancing and instructional when recalled, the book is about not giving up on life too quickly.




Certainly Marvellous, a spry woman who swims naked in the creek near her caravan, who lies a candle in the half-sunken church that sits in an island between the waters and who lives and eat off the land that is her home and a character in itself, has had reason enough to give up on life on many occasions.

Ridicule, misunderstanding – Marvellous is by no means a conventional woman of thought or deed  and has consequently suffered for it – lost love, missed opportunities, a fractured family whose gaps have been filled by fancy and imagination, all could be considered to have blighted her life.

And while she admits to pain and loss and regret – there is no attempt by her to whitewash life; she admits to the worst but keeps aiming and hoping for the best, testament to the power of belief and expectation – she refuses to let them define her life or her attitude to its living.

This infectious but no-nonsense approach to life is sorely needed by returned serviceman, Drake, who escapes World War Two and a less than stellar childhood defined by broken dreams and an absent father, with his physical being intact but his spirit troubled and near to breaking; and by Peace Jones, who has found purpose and meaning in baking but who feels incomplete and lacking in wholeness.

There are a host of other characters who come in and out of the lives of these three main characters, all of whom are wounded or lost in some way.

“Ever since she had entered hr ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death, as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Paper Jacks’ dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it’s coming.” (P. 3)

What is so appealing about A Year of Marvellous Ways in that in its pursuit of magical joy and hope, again expressed in ways so lyrical your heart will dance as you read, it doesn’t pretend that everything will be all right as some kind of foregone conclusion.

Nor that pain, suffering, broken hearts and bodies can be ignored simply by the power of positive thinking.

As grounded in thought as Marvellous is in the wild and manmade worlds around her, Winman’s book accepts the grave realities of life but refuses to accept them as the be-all and end-all.

For those who feel that too much of the modern positivity movement glosses over the less desirable aspects of life, sweeping them under the rug while failing to remove them from the heart where the fester regardless, A Year of Marvellous Ways is a tonic, an acknowledgement that life may be vicious and cruel and implacable at times but that recovery and belonging are possible and happiness and contentment not perpetually out of reach pipe dreams.

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