Bite-size Books: Silver in the Wood

Book cover: Silver in the Wood - Emily Tesh (a bearded man's face depicted in organic leafy fashion)When Tobias Finch offers new landowner Henry Silver shelter from the rain, they strike up an unlikely friendship. But Greenhollow holds an irresistible attraction for a folklorist – and so does the Wild Man who lives there.

Silver in the Wood is one of our Subjective Chaos nominees for Best Novella and it’s not difficult to see why. Emily Tesh tells her tale in atmospheric prose, full of call backs to the nature of her protagonist, constantly evoking the wood in which he dwells. The result is a shimmering mirage of reinvented folklore with a deep sense of place that swept me off my sofa and left me listening to birdsong under dappled sunlight as the branches rustled overhead.

It’s a coy story – to a point – so ‘ware spoilers if you prefer to venture into the woods completely innocent (although I’ll avoid major plot developments).

Tobias Finch is a solitary man, living in the depths of Greenhollow with his cat and the occasional company of some dryads. He knows every inch of the wood, its ancient boundaries and its current borders; and he cares for it as best he’s able. Sometimes he’s lost to its timeless song, drifting – it can be difficult to stay in touch with the daily concerns of the local village – other times he’s intimately aware of who sets foot in his wood.

When Henry Silver buys the land, Tobias is aware of the change in legal ownership. But they strike up a much closer acquaintance when Tobias caves in to the urge to offer the handsome young man in the good coat shelter from the rain. Clever, charming, unexpectedly flirtatious, Henry cultivates Tobias – because Henry Silver is a folklorist, and he’s determined to piece together the many myths of Greenhollow. But Silver’s obsession may be his undoing: for the home of the Wild Man may be beautiful, but it’s not entirely safe.

I think I fell in love with Silver in the Wood by the end of the first page, and by the end it had put my emotions through their paces and left me tired and happy. There’s so much to delight in here.

Let’s start with the characters: gruff Tobias, sparkling Silver, fearsome Mrs Silver (a practical folklorist, I may have a new life ambition), protective Bramble, determined to be peculiar. I loved how each takes shape through the observations of others, and gains nuance as they interact and you realise how flawed perception can be. I also – unsurprisingly – adored Mrs Silver, not at the woman I expected and absolutely the sort of character who deserves an entire series of her own. Ahem.

Then there’s the world-building: the magical wood of Greenhollow with its shifting trees and shadowy midsummer threats. The almost ephemeral village – little more than a notion of cottages and a pub – and the Hall with its fine library and good guest rooms. It’s the merest suggestion of a world; the only locations with a sense of reality are Tobias’s cottage and the ancient oak he likes to drowse under. When Tobias ventures out of his wood, the rest of the world is even less substantial – I couldn’t tell you if this is set in a parallel time, a familiar secondary world, or is cast as a historical fantasy. And honestly? It doesn’t matter.

This is first and foremost a fairytale romance of the Wild Man of the woods and the dapper, naive human who has no idea what threats surround him. The substance here is emotional; the weight of ancient loyalties and the spark of kindling connections.

Tesh hints at back story throughout until the past assaults the present, injecting threat and focus into an otherwise meandering tale that is as loosely-connected to time as Tobias himself. The end of the first act is frankly devastating, but I loved the change it introduced: taking Tobias out of the woods and into the world, regaining a sense of himself as an individual as his frame of reference shifts. And when the story comes full circle – as all good fairytales do – and Tobias returns to Greenhollow to make peace, it’s intensely satisfying.

I picked up Silver in the Wood expecting a light, comforting read. Instead, I found myself full of feelings, beautifully managed. I loved Emily Tesh’s playful, heartfelt storytelling, and I’ll be lining up for my copy of Drowned Country when it comes out later this year.