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Review: Meet Me at the Surface - Jodie Matthews

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Published: Fourth Estate, February 2024

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

"Everything that comes from the ground has to go back down, eventually…”

Ladies and gentlemen behold: one of the best examples of style and atmosphere matching theme and content I’ve encountered in a long time. That is simultaneously this novels greatest strength and deepest downfall. It’s the kind of book about grief and alienation that I deeply love for its still in capturing a profound experience, yet can’t quite say I fullyenjoyed reading for that same reason.

The Story:

A young woman returns to her childhood hometown; a decaying village on the Bodmin Moors, to attend the memorial service of her ex-girlfriend Claude. Amidst the décor of many of her formative childhood experiences, she finds her hometown stranger and more alienating than ever. She’s sure that her mother is hiding something. The villagers are hunting on the moors at night, but for what? And then there’s a notebook, found in an old chest of drawers, full of long-forgotten folklore than seems to be linked somehow to Claud… Memories resurface, and Merryn soon realizes she is, despite her best efforts, far more rooted in this place than she thought she was…

What I Loved:

When I say “style matches substance here”, I mean it. From its desolate Bodmin-moor setting to its dark folk-tale motifs, every single page of this novel breathes gloom, melancholy and “murk”. It’s an exploration of the protagonists slow sinking into the marsh of her own grief and the cyclical trauma of not-belonging. It’s claustrophobic, suffocating and dragging. Just like that feeling is… And yet there is a certain kind of beauty in it too. A haunting quality that makes you linger.

If I had to capture this novel in one word, I’d use one that the novel actually quotes itself too, alongside with a few other untranslatable words from the Irish and Cornish language that introduce the chapters.Hireath: a sense of isolated longing tinged with grief and sadness. A homesickness for a place you can never return to, or which maybe never even was.”

I am in awe of how well the author was able to capture that sensation in the smallest of moments. Uncanny folk-traditions (the chapter where Merryn eats raw lavender blossoms to “sooth her insides” after receiving the news about Claude stands out to me), warping of midwives tales (The Perigee and their take on changelings) and nature writing of icy cold fens and damp moors frame the margins of the story and settle it firmly in time and place.

When it comes to its portrayal of complex grief, loneliness and a toxic queer relationship with all its ramifications: this was top-tier!

What I didn’t love:

As mentioned: the qualities that make this novel amazing, are what will make it a marmite read to many. The pacing is slow, deliberately so. The story drags itself like a wounded animal and you can feel in your bones from the start that there’s no way this is going to end well. If anything, the book could’ve benefited from a little more light to balance its darkness. That might have made it a bit more readable, but might also have intensified the contrast when things eventually getdark.

Overall: this is modern Cornish Gothic at its finest. If that’s your cup of tea like it is mine: this one is for you. If you’re in the market for something more lighthearted, I recommend giving this one a pass.

Readalikes: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

You can find this book here on Goodreads.


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