It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
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.