How do you fill the gaps where no words exist? That’s the question at the heart of What Willow Says, a novel which follows the interactions of a deaf granddaughter and her grandmother as the two connect over their shared love of nature.
What Willow Says is author Lynn Buckle’s second novel, both published with epoque press. It’s a short book – coming in at 124 pages, sitting in that space between novella and novel – and follows a woman and her granddaughter. This plot mostly consists of vignettes: little daily interactions between the two, as they share their love of nature, and create their own language, a mixture of Irish Sign Language and the makeshift words that the granddaughter comes up with.
The framing of a narrative around a grandmother and granddaughter, following small moments and interactions, and the implicit grief in the absence of a mother figure, is not something new. Finnish author Tove Jansson most famously did it in her novel The Summer Book, which What Willow Says brings to mind constantly. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and Lynn Buckle covers it well, discussing the idea of second chances for the grandmother in childrearing, as well as the way language is constructed and created between family members across generations.
What Willow Says, like The Summer Book, presents a different approach to writing novels in the mainstream. Despite loving both, and having reread Jansson’s novel numerous times, I couldn’t easily tell you their plots – not precisely – and that’s because neither rely on a plot, or at least don’t centre around it. What Willow Says has some recurring images and a general direction: the deaf granddaughter listening to trees and trying to ascribe sounds to them, referenced in the title to the book; the slow backburn of grief that punctuates the entire novel; the conceptualisation of our frail mortality. But plot-wise, it is a very pared back novel.
This is what makes it so impressive how affecting it can be. In mainstream media, we are bombarded with plot twists, continually heightened narratives that go from one emotionally charged moment to the next, never letting up, never allowing space to breathe. For a short novel, there’s miles of space in What Willow Says. So frequently we are left just sitting, watching, listening – existing in the narrative, rather than moving within it. That being said, if you’re looking for the next edge-of-your-seat read, look elsewhere. Look mainstream; look away. This book does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a gentle, quietly affecting, but ultimately plot-loose novel.
The novel also covers some important themes surrounding d/Deaf culture. As Buckle puts it so well: “She remembers being told to listen, the mortification of extra tuition, and a new girl’s cruel words. Those three things have heavy listings. Sometimes there is no one so deaf as a hearing person.” And throughout we see not only the failings of certain people, but also the great goodness of others. The vet who knows how to speak sign language and can therefore communicate with the granddaughter. The returning family members – aunts and daughters – who bring with them sign language terms from other countries, other sign languages, like British and American Sign Languages (BSL and ASL respectively).
What Willow Says is an important book that understates its own importance. It covers topics that have such immense weight (disability, nature, climate change, grief), but with such a deft touch that it comes across as a light read. Pinning this story in the emotional relationship between a girl and her grandmother is vital in achieving this. What Willow Says is a book of great warmth and tenderness, gentle and slow without being dull or unaffecting. It’s an antidote book, a palate cleanser.
About the Contributor
Zoë Wells (she/her) is a Swiss-British writer and poet based in the UK. She is currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, having previously received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick. She is working on a debut historical fiction novel, alongside a poetry pamphlet, and has had her short fiction and nonfiction published in a number of magazines. Find her on twitter at @zwells_writes or visit her website.