Twelve Moons: A Year Under a Shared Sky by Caro Giles – Review
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe
Expert stonemasons listen to the songs that the stones make with each chisel blow. A solid base note tells them all is well. A higher pitched resonance signals that there could be a problem, so they adjust the angle of the chisel and the force of the mallet strike until the stress reduces and harmony is restored. They understand the seriousness of their task, recognising that the tiniest wrong move could cause irreparable damage to the art that they are working on, and that their success lies in being able to listen with both heart and ear to the material they have charge of.
What has this got to do with Caro Giles’ exquisite memoir Twelve Moons, which debuted last year, but is now available in paperback? Only this: Giles is an exceptional single mum, whose listening skills and gentle parenting are so attuned to her four girls’ emotional, educational, and physical needs, that something very precious and beautiful is emerging in their individual lives, even amidst the tumult and chaos of events that are far removed from those she envisioned for her family.
Giles’ writing is set against the magnificent landscape of the Northumberland coastline, begins just as the world is closing its doors to a pandemic that is frightening and isolating and, moving through one full year, finishes as those doors begin to re-open and present new possibilities. The one constant throughout is the presence of the moon – the same moon that her sister looks out on in Australia, and her parents and other siblings see in their own locations. The moon has been used as a device to keep track of the months and seasons in many diverse cultures since ancient times, with each lunar full moon given a different name according to the traditions of each society. Giles uses these names to mark her own passage through a year that waxes and wanes with its own uncertainties, joys, and unfolding possibilities.
Memoir, however interesting, can often feel too reflective or ‘past heavy’, but Giles has captured a real sense of immediacy in her writing, presumably making notes as each event happened and then adding in background details of her life afterwards. The natural scenery of Northumbria has a raw, often bleak, always beautiful, energy to it, and by layering the wide, empty beaches, the spiky, matted roots of Marram Grass, and the kestrels flying, hovering, swooping, bleeding and killed, upon achingly real descriptions of loss, frustration and questions of identity that go far deeper than personal history, Giles tethers the two together with an honesty that reads as rough as hessian but sewn with stitches of silk. There are episodes in this book where it would have been too easy to view the chaotic points as howling at, rather than looking at, the moon that is always there above the rooftops, but Giles uses a measured, controlled first person breathlessness throughout most of Twelve Moons that is so considered that it allows for the moments to be poured onto the page with full authentic intention, but never permits the words to disintegrate into a tearful, bleeding lament. And through that discipline, Giles’ dignity and hope shines through.
Despite winning the Countryfile New Nature Writing Award in 2021, Giles has said often in interviews that she doesn’t really regard herself as a Nature Writer per se, and whilst the landscape does play a pivotal role in Twelve Moons, it is important to stress that this isn’t a nature writing memoir. It would perhaps be better labelled as ‘writing about place’, with pertinent questions to ask about the places we all dwell in and encounter, be they urban or rural based. Questions of accessibility for all. Questions about the safety and value of women in society. Questions about the damage being done to our environment and planet. Questions about bureaucracies that are based on people management and fulfilling quotas rather than recognising individual needs.
I don’t want to leave this review before mentioning the work of Anna Morrison, who has designed the cover of Twelve Moons. It is elegant and delicate, but with an underlying strength and depth that is simply perfect for Giles’ words. There’s a glimmering, transformational alchemy that happens when writer and cover illustrator are married perfectly. There are eleven phases of the moon on the front, but I promise you, the twelfth is there if you do but look.
In addition to being courageously brave in telling her story, Giles is also a singer and musician who references leading singing lessons, taking her ukelele to play on the beaches, playing the piano and recognising the empowerment that music brings to those who feel they have no voice. Like those expert stonemasons, she can hear the strained notes of the weary, the sad and the lonely, including her own and those of her children (but not exclusively), and understands the need to carve, chisel and smooth, until a solution is found. Her materials may be different, but the results are just as beautiful.
And the silver ribbon that laces through all of this is her profound love of four young girls, that shimmers like moonlight on water …
Beautiful. Just Beautiful.
‘Twelve Moons: A Year Under A Shared Sky’ by Caro Giles is published by Harper-North