I’ve been reading twisted fairy tales, a novel about witches and vampires with historical and contemporary timelines, and a subtle work of Gothic horror set on a remote stretch of the English coast.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (2013)
Aimee Bender is best known for The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. This is the second collection of her stories that I’ve read. Most have a touch of the bizarre to them – a tiny tweak to normal life – but some are set in completely alternate worlds. One character experiences extreme face blindness; another deludes himself that he was a famously vicious Nazi during the Second World War. Seamstresses take on odd tasks like repairing endangered animals or, in the title story, creating a dress that resembles the moon and embodies female anger. In “Appleless,” vigilantes punish a girl who won’t eat apples, while “The Devourings” is a dark riff on Shrek in which a woman comes to terms with her ogre husband’s innate violence.
A few favorites were “A State of Variance,” in which a character can’t seem to avoid perfect facial symmetry no matter how he tries to mar his natural beauty, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” a philosophical conversation between an ill rabbi and her atheist-leaning parishioner, and “The Red Ribbon” (which draws on the same source material as Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”), about a bored housewife who starts acting out sexual fantasies to try to save her marriage.
Bender deploys a good mixture of voices and protagonists, though at least four of the 15 stories felt unnecessary to me. Her approach is similar to Kelly Link’s and Karen Russell’s, but I’ve failed to get on with their surreal stories before – Bender’s writing is that bit more accessible. I’d recommend her to fans of stories by Amy Bloom and Sarah Hall.
Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness (2018)
This is a companion volume to Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which is like the thinking gal’s Twilight, as written by a historian of science. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, in 2011 and surprised myself by completely loving the story of the witch Diana Bishop, who researches alchemy at the Bodleian Library and falls hard for a centuries-old vampire, Matthew de Clermont. Although Time’s Convert is likely intended to stand alone, I felt it could do with a dramatis personae at the start as I’d forgotten who many of the minor characters were.
Diana and Matthew are still major characters, though not at the heart of the book. One strand has Diana and her family staying in the French countryside. She and Matthew now have toddler twins, Philip and Becca, who are just starting to show magical powers: Philip summons a griffon named Apollo as his familiar. Another is set in Paris, where Phoebe Taylor is willingly being transformed into a vampire so she can marry Matthew’s son, Marcus. A final strand recreates Marcus’s experiences during the American and French Revolutions and onward: he was born in Massachusetts in 1757 and was a surgeon during the Revolutionary War before he met Matthew and received the offer of immortality.
I almost always feel that sequels fail to live up to the original. Time’s Convert is most like Shadow of Night, the second book of the series and my least favorite because it spends so much time in 1590s England. Here the three different story lines split my focus and I resented being taken away from Diana’s first-person narration, which is much more engaging than the third-person material. I would only recommend this volume to diehard fans of the series.
With thanks to Headline for the free copy for review.
Note: A television adaptation of A Discovery of Witches recently aired on Sky One in the UK and is coming to North America in January.
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (2014)
The Loney is not a monster, as I suppose I expected, but a place: an isolated coastline in the northwest of England that the narrator and his family visited on pilgrimage with their Roman Catholic congregation every Easter in the 1970s. The narrator, only identified by the nickname Tonto, explores their strange rental house – full of taxidermied animals and hidden rooms, it also has a rifle under the floorboards – and goes to the beach with his mute brother Andrew (“Hanny”). Mummer and Farther hold out hope that their son Hanny will be healed on a visit to the local shrine, and Mummer especially is frustrated that Father Bernard isn’t as strict and devout as their previous priest, Father Wilfred, who died under a cloud of suspicion not long before this trip.
Last year at around this time I read Hurley’s follow-up, Devil’s Day, which has a similarly bleak and eerie atmosphere. Both look at rural superstitions as experienced by outsiders. The Loney was more profound for me, though, in how it subverts religious rituals and posits a subtle evil influence without ever disappearing down doctrinal rabbitholes. It asks how far people will go to get what they want, what meaning there is to human life if there is no supernatural being looking out for us, and – through a framing story set 30 or more years later – how guilt and memory persist. I especially loved the Tenebrae service in a gloomy church featuring Bosch-like horrors in its artwork. This reminded me of a less abstract After Me Comes the Flood and a more contemporary The Short Day Dying; I highly recommend it.
“The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place – dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.”
“The wind continued to rise and fall. Whining and shrilling. It was as insistent as the priest, louder sometimes, preaching an older sermon, about the sand and the sea.”
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
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.
I’ve never read anything by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, so Annabel, Laura and I are embarking on a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness this month, too.
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 Melmoththe 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?
A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.
I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.
Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.
“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”
“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Here are 30 books that are on my radar for the months of July through November (I haven’t heard about any December titles yet), plus one bonus book that I’ve already read. This is by no means a full inventory of what’s coming out, or even of what I have available through NetGalley and Edelweiss; instead, think of it as a preview of the books I actually intend to read, in release date order. The quoted descriptions are from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads. If I already have access to the book in some way, I’ve noted that.
The first half of the year seemed to be all about plants. This time around I have plenty of memoirs, some medical and some bookish; birds and watery imagery; and some religious and philosophical themes.
17 out of 30 read; of those 8 were at least somewhat disappointing (d’oh!)
1 currently reading
1 lost interest in
1 I still intend to read
5 I didn’t manage to find]
No One Tells You This: A Memoir by Glynnis MacNicol [July 10, Simon & Schuster]: “If the story doesn’t end with marriage or a child, what then? This question plagued Glynnis MacNicol on the eve of her 40th birthday. … Over the course of her fortieth year, which this memoir chronicles, Glynnis embarks on a revealing journey of self-discovery that continually contradicts everything she’d been led to expect.” (NetGalley download)
The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz [July 10, Blue Rider Press]: “Leslie Schwartz’s powerful, skillfully woven memoir of redemption and reading, as told through the list of books she read as she served a 90-day jail sentence. … Incarceration might have ruined her, if not for the stories that comforted her while she was locked up.”
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: Gardening and Surviving Against the Odds by Kate Bradbury [July 17, Bloomsbury Wildlife]: “Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space.”
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero [July 17, One World]: “A daughter’s quest to find, understand, and save her charismatic, troubled, and elusive father, a self-mythologizing Mexican immigrant who travels across continents—and across the borders between imagination and reality; and spirituality and insanity—fleeing real and invented persecutors.”
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon [July 31, Riverhead]: “A shocking novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea. … The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.” (Print ARC for blog review at UK release on Sept. 6 [Virago])
Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller [Aug. 2, Penguin Fig Tree]: I’ve loved Fuller’s two previous novels. This one is described as “a suspenseful story about deception, sexual obsession and atonement” set in 1969 in a run-down English country house. I don’t need to know any more than that; I have no doubt it’ll be brilliant in an Iris Murdoch/Gothic way. (Print ARC for blog review on release date)
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim [Aug. 7, William Morrow]: “An emotionally riveting debut novel about war, family, and forbidden love—the unforgettable saga of two ill-fated lovers in Korea and the heartbreaking choices they’re forced to make in the years surrounding the civil war that continues to haunt us today.” This year’s answer to Pachinko? And another botanical cover to boot! (Edelweiss download)
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua [Aug. 14, Ballantine Books]: “In a powerful debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream. … an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit” Sounds like The Leavers, which is a Very Good Thing.
The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher [Aug. 14, Doubleday]: A sequel to the very funny epistolary novel Dear Committee Members! “Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes aim against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional.” (Edelweiss download)
Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back) by Mara Altman [Aug. 21, G.P. Putnam’s Sons]: “By using a combination of personal anecdotes and fascinating research, Gross Anatomy holds up a magnifying glass to our beliefs, practices, biases, and body parts and shows us the naked truth—that there is greatness in our grossness.” (PDF from publisher; to review for GLAMOUR online)
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux [Aug. 21, W. W. Norton Company]: This is the bonus one I’ve already read, as part of my research for my Literary Hub article on rereading Little Women at its 150th anniversary. (That’s also the occasion for this charming book.) Rioux unearths Little Women’s origins in Alcott family history, but also traces its influence through to the present day. She also makes a strong feminist case for it. My short Goodreads review is here. (Edelweiss download)
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart [Sept. 4, Random House]: I read his memoir but am yet to try his fiction. “When his dream of the perfect marriage, the perfect son, and the perfect life implodes, a Wall Street millionaire takes a cross-country bus trip in search of his college sweetheart and ideals of youth. … [a] biting, brilliant, emotionally resonant novel very much of our times.” (Edelweiss download; for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review)
In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary by Jan Morris [Sept. 6, Faber & Faber]: One of my most admired writers. “A collection of diary pieces that Jan Morris wrote for the Financial Times over the course of 2017.” I have never before in my life kept a diary of my thoughts, and here at the start of my ninth decade, having for the moment nothing much else to write, I am having a go at it. Good luck to me.
Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power [Sept. 6, Picador]: “[F]or a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne. As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?” (Print ARC)
Normal People by Sally Rooney [Sept. 6, Faber & Faber]: Much anticipated follow-up to Conversations with Friends. “Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. But they both get places to study at university in Dublin, and a connection that has grown between them despite the social tangle of school lasts long into the following years.”
Mrs. Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens [Sept. 6, Picador]: “In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD … and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs. Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.” I was lukewarm on her previous book, Bleaker House, but I couldn’t resist the Victorian theme of this one! (Print ARC to review for Shiny New Books)
Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar [Sept. 18, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “Deftly alternating between key historical episodes and his own work, Jauhar tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ. … Affecting, engaging, and beautifully written.” (Edelweiss download)
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn [Sept. 18, Heliotrope Books]: “Lisa was raised as a ‘Moonie’—a member of the Unification Church, founded by self-appointed Messiah, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. … Told with spirited candor, [this] reveals how one can leave behind such absurdity and horror and create a life of intention and joy.”
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss [Sept. 20, Granta]: I’ve read Moss’s complete (non-academic) oeuvre; I’d read her on any topic. This novella sounds rather similar to her first book, Cold Earth, which I read recently. “Teenage Silvie is living in a remote Northumberland camp as an exercise in experimental archaeology. … Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her, and as the hot summer builds to a terrifying climax, Silvie and the Bog girl are in ever more terrifying proximity.” (NetGalley download)
Time’s Convert (All Souls Universe #1) by Deborah Harkness [Sept. 25, Viking]: I was a sucker for Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches and its sequels, much to my surprise. (The thinking girl’s Twilight, you see. I don’t otherwise read fantasy.) Set between the American Revolution and contemporary London, this fills in the backstory for some of the vampire characters.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung [Oct. 2, Catapult]: “Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. … With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child.” (Edelweiss download)
Melmoth by Sarah Perry [Oct. 2, Serpent’s Tail]: Gothic fantasy / historical thriller? Not entirely sure. I just know that it’s the follow-up by the author of The Essex Serpent. (I choose to forget that her first novel exists.) Comes recommended by Eleanor Franzen and Simon Savidge, among others. (Edelweiss download)
The Ravenmaster: Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife [Oct. 2, 4th Estate]: More suitably Gothic pre-Halloween fare! “Legend has it that if the Tower of London’s ravens should perish or be lost, the Crown and kingdom will fall. … [A]fter decades of serving the Queen, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife took on the added responsibility of caring for these infamous birds.” I briefly met the author when he accompanied Lindsey Fitzharris to the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux [Oct. 4, Faber & Faber]: “Friedrich Nietzsche’s work forms the bedrock of our contemporary thought, and yet a shroud of misunderstanding surrounds the philosopher behind these proclamations. The time is right for a new take on Nietzsche’s extraordinary life, whose importance as a thinker rivals that of Freud or Marx.” (For a possible TLS review?)
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott [Oct. 16, Riverhead]: I haven’t been too impressed with Lamott’s recent stuff, but I’ll still read anything she publishes. “In this profound and funny book, Lamott calls for each of us to rediscover the nuggets of hope and wisdom that are buried within us that can make life sweeter than we ever imagined. … Almost Everything pinpoints these moments of insight as it shines an encouraging light forward.”
The Library Book by Susan Orlean [Oct. 16, Simon & Schuster]: The story of a devastating fire at Los Angeles Public Library in April 1986. “Investigators descended on the scene, but over 30 years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who? Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, … Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can.” (Edelweiss download)
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver [Oct. 18, Faber & Faber]: Kingsolver is another author I’d read anything by. “[T]he story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts.” 1880s vs. today, with themes of science and utopianism – I’m excited! (Edelweiss download)
Nine Pints: A Journey through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood by Rose George [Oct. 23, Metropolitan Books]: “Rose George, author of The Big Necessity [on human waste], is renowned for her intrepid work on topics that are invisible but vitally important. In Nine Pints, she takes us from ancient practices of bloodletting to modern ‘hemovigilance’ teams that track blood-borne diseases.”
The End of the End of the Earth: Essays by Jonathan Franzen [Nov. 13, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “[G]athers essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years … Whether exploring his complex relationship with his uncle, recounting his young adulthood in New York, or offering an illuminating look at the global seabird crisis, these pieces contain all the wit and disabused realism that we’ve come to expect from Franzen.”
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel [Nov. 13, Fig Tree Books]: “How does a woman who grew up in rural Indiana as a fundamentalist Christian end up a practicing Jew in New York? … Ultimately, the connection to God she so relentlessly pursued was found in the most unexpected place: a mikvah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This devout Christian Midwesterner found her own form of salvation—as a practicing Jewish woman.”
Becoming by Michelle Obama [Nov. 13, Crown]: “In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.”
Which of these do you want to read, too? What other upcoming 2018 titles are you looking forward to?
A short Gothic drama about hedonism versus the ethical life, this was my seventh Murdoch novel, and, alas, one of the less memorable ones (along with An Unofficial Rose and The Black Prince). Narrator Edmund Narraway, an engraver in his forties, arrives at the family home, a Victorian rectory in the North, one moonlit night shortly after his mother’s death. He’s locked out, but fortunately there’s another night prowler about who can let him in: David Levkin, the apprentice to Edmund’s drunken stonemason brother, Otto.
Edmund finds his mother Lydia’s body laid out on her bed and recalls the almost Oedipal relationships she had with him and his brother. Hints of incest are also there in Edmund’s infatuation with his niece, Flora, while various characters are in love (or lust) with David and his peculiar sister, Elsa, who both live in the property’s summer house. As in A Severed Head, the language of possession marks these shifting bonds as unhealthy and obsessive.
Murdoch often sets up stark dichotomies between characters and situations, and here Otto and Edmund serve as the two poles: “Otto’s Gothic, you know,” his wife Isabel says to Edmund. “He is the north. He’s primitive, gross.” In contrast, Edmund clings to the narrow way (as his surname suggests) of morality, taking a hard line on his niece’s ethical dilemma and largely avoiding the sexual temptations that come his way. “You are a good man,” Isabel tells him. “You are the assessor, the judge, the inspector, the liberator. You will clear us all up.”
I found this setup a little too simplistic (the brothers are also referred to by the shorthand of “wet-lipped” and “dry-lipped”), and the generalizing about Jews that bothered me in A Severed Head is worse here: there’s a whole chapter entitled “Two Kinds of Jew.” Given the title, I was unsure what role Maggie, the latest in Lydia’s series of Italian servants, is meant to play. She’s virtually speechless until the final chapter, and seems most like a nun.
A surprise will, a fire, and an interlude in an “enchanted wood” keep things moving along quickly, and it’s Murdoch’s shortest novel, almost what you’d call novella length. But this mostly felt to me like an unnecessary reprise of A Severed Head (and perhaps The Unicorn, which I haven’t read but know has a very Gothic atmosphere).
I’m participating on and off in Liz Dexter’s two-year Iris Murdoch readalong project to get through some of the paperbacks I own. See also her interesting introductory post on The Italian Girl. I have two more readalong books lined up for later in the year: The Nice and the Good in September and An Accidental Man in December. Join us for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?
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 reviewfrom 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 TheTowers 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.