For the first time I’m joining in with the R.I.P. challenge (that’s “Readers Imbibing Peril,” if you’re unfamiliar) – a spur to read the dark fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror and suspense books I own during the month of October. None of these are go-to genres for me, but I do have some books that fit the bill. To start me off, I set aside this pile early in September. I’m not sure how many I’ll get through, so I’m not committing to a particular number.
Several of my review books for the month also happen to be appropriate, beginning with one of my current reads, Little by Edward Carey, a delightfully macabre historical novel about the real-life girl who became Madame Tussaud of waxworks fame. I hope to review it here soon. I also have Deborah Harkness’s latest and an upcoming fable by A.L. Kennedy. Continuing last month’s focus on short stories, I’m going to start on Aimee Bender’s 2013 volume soon; it might just be fantastical enough to count towards the challenge.
And then I may cheat and add in these two ‘blood-y’ nonfiction books since I’m going to be reading them soon anyway.
My other goal is to read more of the print books I’ve acquired over the past year, including some of 2017’s birthday and Christmas hauls and the books I bought at Bookbarn and in Wigtown. My birthday is coming up in the middle of the month, so it would be good to start chipping away at these stacks before the new acquisitions pile up much more!
I got a head start on a month of spooky reading with Sarah Perry’s new Gothic tale, Melmoth. It seems to have been equally inspired by Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer and by Perry’s time in Prague as a UNESCO World City of Literature Writer in Residence. The action opens in Prague in 2016 as Helen Franklin, a translator, runs into her distressed friend Dr. Karel Pražan one December night. An aged fellow scholar, Josef Hoffman, has been found dead in the National Library, where Helen and Karel first met. Karel is now in possession of the man’s leather document file, which contains accounts of his Holocaust-era family history and of his investigations into the Melmoth legend. She was one of the women at Jesus’s empty tomb but denied the resurrection and so was cursed to wander the Earth ever after. As Hoffman explains, “she is lonely, with an eternal loneliness” and “she comes to those at the lowest ebb of life.”
Is this just a tale used to scare children? In any case, it resonates with Helen, who exiled herself to Prague 20 years ago to escape guilt over a terrible decision. For most of the book we get only brief glimpses into Helen’s private life, like when she peeks into the under-the-bed shoebox where she keeps relics of the life she left behind. We do eventually learn what she ran away from, but by then I was so weary of dull found documents, irritating direct reader address (“Look! It is evening now … Reader, witness, here is what you see”), and toothless Gothic tropes that the reveal was barely worth hanging around for. Alas, I found the whole thing pretty melodramatic and silly, and not in the least bit frightening.
I truly loved The Essex Serpent (), but I think Perry is one of those authors where I will need to skip every other release and just read the even numbers; After Me Comes the Flood, her first, was one of my lowest-rated books ever (). I recall that when I saw her speak at Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature in 2016 Perry revealed that Novel #4 will be a contemporary courtroom drama. I’ll try again with that one.
Melmoth is released in the UK today, October 2nd. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a proof copy for review. It comes out in the USA from Custom House on the 16th. Sarah Perry has written an interesting article about being on strong pain medication while writing Melmoth.
Will you be reading anything scary in the month ahead? Can you recommend any of the books I have coming up?
This is only the second theology book I’ve reviewed here, after Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight in May 2015. I requested John Pritchard’s Something More from SPCK after reading a leaflet about it at Bloxham Festival, thinking it sounded like a relevant, non-preachy approach to the spiritual side of life. And that is indeed what I found. It’s a book stuffed full of relatable themes under one overarching topic: the moments that cause us to question whether there is more to life than what we see and do in the everyday.
Each chapter has many of the familiar elements of a short sermon: opening prompts, personal or borrowed anecdotes, exposition of a theme, quotations from the Bible and other writers or poets, and life application questions. At times I felt Pritchard was too reliant on quotes from other authors, meaning I didn’t get a particular sense of his own style. However, like an Anglican sermon, each chapter is something you can work through in 10 or 15 minutes – understandable, solidly put together, and with plenty of take-home messages.
Some examples of the chapter-by-chapter themes are suffering, social justice, the arts, and the search for stillness and wonder. There are a few slightly overlapping pieces that might have been combined, but that would have altered the digestible format. A recurring image is of the church building as a tranquil place of holiness and power – no matter if you view it religiously or not. Whether Pritchard is discussing pain or poetry, his tactic is always to expose hints of the supernatural. “To describe the Bruch violin concerto as the product of horse hair scraping over catgut doesn’t feel adequate. There’s more to be said,” he writes.
That word “more” is the book’s clarion call, encouraging readers to look deeper into every situation for sparks of light that point to God. SPCK is a venerable Christian publishing company and Pritchard is a retired Bishop of Oxford, so it’s clear where the book is coming from. Its assumptions may not reflect your own, as Pritchard is well aware. He remembers being in a hospital in London and telling his nurse about the book he was planning. “The entire Christian world-view is probably a foreign country to my nurse,” he realized, which encouraged him to avoid religious jargon and keep it simple and applicable here.
I think everyone can relate to the circumstances Pritchard sets out at the beginning of the book: “Life is OK in an OK kind of way but it fails the test of ecstasy or lament. It rolls on in a safe, middling register, but it feels as if there should be more. … In the meantime we get on with secondary things, with our habits of low hope.” If you dare to think there must be more to life than going to work and paying the bills and want to explore what might be out there, I’d recommend picking this up alongside books by some of the other terrific writers Pritchard quotes, such as Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
With thanks to Sarah Head at SPCK for sending a free copy for review.
This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love. The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. Mysterious deaths and disappearances are automatically attributed to the Serpent who dwells in the depths of the Blackwater. This atmosphere of paranoia triggers some schoolgirls to erupt in frenzied delusions as in The Crucible. It is unclear whether the Church should tolerate a source of mystery or dismiss it all as nonsense – after all, there’s a winged serpent carved onto one of the pews at the parish church.
In a domestic counterpart to all these supernatural goings-on, we gain entry into two middle-class households. Cora Seaborne’s abusive husband, Michael, has recently died of throat cancer, leaving her to raise their odd (autistic, I wondered?) eleven-year-old son Francis on her own. She has an amateur interest in fossils to rival Mary Anning’s, so when she hears of a cache near Colchester she leaves London for Essex, bringing along Frankie and her companion, Martha. Mutual friends put her in touch with Will Ransome, the vicar of Aldwinter, sure that he and his family – consumptive wife Stella and children Joanna, James and John – will be able to show her around the coast.
Despite an inauspicious first meeting, which sees Cora and Will, still unknown to each other, hauling a drowning sheep out of a lake, theirs soon becomes a close, easy friendship. Cora feels she can speak her mind about the faith she lost and the new marvels she finds in nature:
I had faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!
She holds her own in cerebral debates with Will as he deplores his parishioners’ fantasies about the Serpent. Is there really such a big difference between his faith – “all strangeness and mystery – all blood, and brimstone,” Cora teases – and the Serpent legend? In seeming contradiction to his career path, Will is more suspicious than many of the other characters of things he doesn’t understand and can’t explain away, like hypnosis and a Fata Morgana.
The novel’s nuanced treatment of faith and doubt is enhanced by references to Victorian science, including fossil hunting and early medical procedures. Dr. Luke Garrett, Michael’s surgeon, is one of Cora’s best friends back in London; she calls him “The Imp.” In one of the most striking passages of the entire book, he performs rudimentary heart surgery on the young victim of a stab wound. Perry fills in the novel’s background with a plethora of apt Victorian themes, including housing reform and London crime. For a book of 440 pages, it has a large cast and a fairly epic scope. Although there are places where subplots and minor characters might have been expanded upon, Perry wisely refrains from stuffing the novel with evidence of her research. Indeed, it’s a restrained book overall, yet breaks out into effusiveness in just the right places, as in Stella’s mystical adoration of the color blue.
Descriptive passages and the letters passing between the characters give a clear sense of the months passing, yet there is also something timelessly English about the narrative – Dickensian in places (Our Mutual Friend) and Hardyesque in others (Far from the Madding Crowd). I especially loved this picture of the June countryside:
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.
Cross this cozy pastoral vision with the Gothic nature of the Serpent craze and you get quite a unique atmosphere. The vague, unexplained sense of menace didn’t work for me at all in Perry’s previous novel, After Me Comes the Flood, but here it’s just right.
It was no doubt true in the late Victorian period that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” (as famously declared in When Harry Met Sally). No one is sure what to make of a sexually available, self-assured female like Cora. The different kinds of Greek love, from philia to eros, keep shading into each other here. Like the water that forms the book’s metaphorical substrate, the relationships ebb and flow. Yet there’s no denigrating any connection as just friendship; in fact, friendship is enough to rescue one character from suicide. Like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the novel asks whether love is ever enough to save us – and gives a considerably more optimistic answer.
The fact that I have an MA in Victorian literature means I’m drawn to Victorian-set novels but also highly critical about their authenticity. While reading this, though, I thoroughly believed that I was in 1890. Moreover, Perry adroitly illuminates the situation of the independent “New Woman” and the quandary of science versus religion (which were the joint subjects of my dissertation: women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction).
I’m delighted, especially having seen Perry speak at Bloxham Festival in February (see my write-up for more on her background and the inspirations behind this novel), to have liked The Essex Serpent three times as much as her debut. It has an elegant, evocative writing style reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Penelope Fitzgerald. Something holds me back from the full 5 stars – too diffuse? Too much staying on the surface of things? Not quite intimate enough, especially about Cora’s inner life? – but I still declare myself mightily impressed. The Essex Serpent counts as one of my favorite novels of 2016 so far. You can see why Serpent’s Tail (how perfect is her publisher’s name?!) rushed this one into publication a few weeks early. Expect to see it on the Booker Prize shortlist and any other award list you care to mention.
With thanks to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald at Serpent’s Tail for the free review copy.
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian review from poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.