Only May by Carol Lovekin
This is a suitable time to be reading this book. It is filled with the sense of May, the month in the countryside, the time of hawthorn blossom, when May is at its most beautiful. The book is also about a young woman called May, as it mainly features the character who shares her thoughts and so much more as she turns seventeen, an important age in this almost ethereal narrative. May has a gift somewhat at odds with her mainly gentle, quiet nature: she can tell with every instinct when a person is lying. Mainly that doesn’t matter, it is small lies of people trying to conceal a minor misdemeanour, but in the novel it becomes important. May is beginning to suspect that her life in the 1950s, when memories of War haunt at least one character, is based on lies. After all, she is part of a small family; her mother Esme, passionate about order, tidiness and routine. Her father who seems only partly present, physically disabled by War, but also living in a realm of memories and pain. Finally, her aunt, Ffion, whose favourite word is “Wild” and is eccentric in every way, who chooses to live in a battered old caravan with equally battered possessions and quite the opposite from her sister Esme. May knows that her family is small, partly because her father is unable to connect, a victim of War in so many ways, and her mother chooses to devote herself to him, as he came back from the fighting.
May admits to those who are concerned about her being lonely as a family’s only child in a small Welsh village. She claims that her best friend Gwen is like a sister when she needs one, when she has secrets that she is willing and able to share. Gwen knows of her secret, her ability to detect untruths, and will help her with it, when it comes to confrontations. Gwen does not accompany May on her most secret journeys, the walks through the woods, the visits to the graveyard where her grandparents are buried. Ffion is also keenly involved in aspects of May’s life, with her observations on the power of the moon, her insistence on secrets, her odd dress sense. She knows something of May’s seeking out the underlying sense of the woods. No one really appreciates how May feels about the bees that follow her, almost trying to communicate with her, sharing their secrets and telling her to look closer.
This is an unusual book, in some ways about the underlying excitement of growing up, sensing new, almost frightening possibilities. It is also about the secrets hidden in a family, in a group of people, that hover on the edge of revelation. Lovekin is a spiritual writer who takes as her subjects things on the edge of dreaming, on the edge of consciousness. This book is about an immersion in nature in so many ways, in its observation, its secrets and its delicate beauty. It has an overwhelming sense of place, the small woods, gardens and journeys. Like all families, and many individuals, there are many sides to know, to discover, and May is discovering so much about herself in the context of others.
I enjoyed this book for its lyrical writing, its beautiful construction, and its essential wild delicacy. It has so much to say about May, and her voice echoes throughout the book, but very much in her context. It is observational, delicate, yet with a core of hardness in some of the characters who tell lies, who behave badly, who test May in so many ways. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys nature writing, but also those who are fascinated by people and the secrets that define them.