Novella review – Season of Bright Sorrow by David Swann

Season-of-Bright-Sorrow-webBook Balm recommendation: read to rediscover the beauty in every rock pool and puddle.

With a cover printed to resemble a weathered and pre-loved artefact, Season of Bright Sorrow by David Swann is a find to treasure. Scattered with elegant miniature artworks by Sam Hubbard, the strung-together stories piece together a precarious time in a young girl’s life on a seashore, with a physically  absent father, an emotionally absent mother and uncertain friendships with an old man and a young boy who both seem to live on a perilous edge just as she does.

Swann sketches the setting and its inhabitants with sparse but carefully selected lines. In Set Your Clock, we have our first meeting with Mr Flook, who “knotted his neck-tie as tight as a whelk and kept his trilby at the correct angle, no matter how hard the wind charged in.” With him is his border collie Ringo, aka “that daft article”. It’s so sharply written that you’ll feel you’ve met the pair.

Then there’s daydreaming, story-spinning Archie who’s “drawn to the puzzle of fields on the edge of the bay” and “spent whole afternoons hopping between the little islands. But the hero of the novella is Lana, the young girl whose life we’re pulled into as though by a tide as she struggles to keep herself and her mother afloat.

In addition to their vulnerability, these characters are tangled together, kelp-like, by their ability to see the beauty in the fringes of the bay and see the things other people miss. To Lana, even the dismal amusement arcades have potential to spill magic into rain-wet streets after dark, ‘where the puddles swam with glossy colours that made her shoes mysterious.”

Feisty, flawed and often afraid, Lana has a capacity for noticing the wonder in every scene, and it’s this superpower, as her dad dubs it, that keeps her looking for clues about where he is now.

In an interview about this 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award-winning manuscript, Swann commented that his idea for the book came about while working in a prison, and this understanding underlays the daily challenges endured by Lana and her mother.

The world knitted into these tales feels utterly real, with tiny facts seeded in that cement their authenticity, from the green light flashing in the night to the behaviour of sandbanks and tides. Swann’s economy with words has a poet’s touch, summing up both the personality and the atmosphere of Lana’s landscape. When Archie thinks of sand, it’s “not fine and white” like in films, but the bay’s “brown sludge” (…) “dropped by a glacier as it died” and “unloaded its pockets”.

Almost everything here is past its best, from the one-time attractions to the building where Lana and Archie both live. But even here there are small miraculous splashes of light, from a chance collision with a stranger that becomes a small, shared dance, to the sighting of a cockle revealing an unexpected skill. This is a novella of sheer delight in the things, and people, that most would overlook, shone up and celebrated in compact, precise flash fictions that add up to something large and unfathomable that will continue to stir within you long after you set it aside.

Season of Bright Sorrow by David Swann is published by AdHoc FictionBuy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

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