I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve made it a habit of posting something about each birthday I’ve celebrated since I started blogging. Maybe because, otherwise, the years pass so quickly that I can’t remember from one to another what I did, ate, or received as presents! So, to follow on from my 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 posts, here’s this year’s rundown. (Oh dear, I realize I’ve read just one of the books I received last year!)
On Thursday, I treated myself to a charity shop crawl around Newbury (it’s a great place for thrift shopping, as is nearby Thatcham) and got two jumpers plus this small stack of secondhand books.
Then yesterday, my actual birthday, we took time off and went to Kelmscott Manor in West Oxfordshire/the Cotswolds (right on the border with Gloucestershire), where Victorian designer William Morris lived. We’re a fan of Morris’s floral-based wallpaper and textile designs and he was a progressive thinker, too, embracing socialism and environmentalism – I’ll get his utopian novel, News from Nowhere, out from the university library to read soon. Despite a drizzly start to the day, the place was packed with visitors. The tea shop’s cakes incorporate fruit from the manor’s own trees. Naturally, I had to sample two of their offerings, and still had room for a chocolate beetroot cupcake (with the requisite candle) once we got home.
On the way back, we stopped in Wantage for some secondhand book shopping. I’d found out about Regent market from Simon’s blog and he’s right – it’s huge, with an excellent stock and good prices (£2 or £2.50 for nearly everything I looked at, vs. when we were in Inverness I didn’t buy a thing at Leakey’s because even poor-condition paperbacks started at £4). I would happily have spent much longer there and acquired twice as much, but one must be restrained when there are further book hauls to come. I was pleased to find several books I’ve been interested in reading for a while, as well as a couple by authors I’ve enjoyed before.
I requested a vegan Chinese feast, inspired by a recent cookbook I’ve reviewed for Shelf Awareness’s upcoming gift books feature, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che. My husband made a special trip to an Asian grocery superstore in Reading and the recipes were fairly involved, but the results – cabbage rolls, wontons and bao buns, most featuring tofu and mushrooms – were worth waiting for. We have leftovers for the weekend, along with a banoffee cheesecake from Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen still to come. (When are complicated dishes for if not for birthdays?)
Here are the books I received as birthday gifts, with more to come, I expect, plus a significant amount of birthday money that I may well spend on books. Some good options for #NovNov22 in here!
In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.
The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)
The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)
Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.
This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)
Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)
[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]
In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.
Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)
Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.
The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.
Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.
Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)
And a bonus children’s book:
If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)
The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
I have a big backlog of review books piled beside my composition station (a corner of the lounge by the front window; an ancient PC inherited from my mother-in-law and not connected to the Internet; a wooden chair with leather seat that had been left behind in a previous rental house’s garage). Nonfiction November is the excuse I need to finally get around to writing about lots of them; at least one more catch-up will be coming later this month. My apologies to the publishers for the brief reviews.
Today I have a therapist’s take on classic literature, an optimist’s research on data use, a journalist’s response to her sister’s and father’s deaths, a professor’s search for the remnants of Charles Darwin at his family home, and a bibliophile’s tales of book-collecting exploits.
How to Live. What to Do.: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen
“Literature and psychoanalysis are both efforts to make sense of the world through stories, to discover the recurring problems and patterns and themes of life. Read and listen enough, and we soon come to notice how insistently the same struggles, anxieties and hopes repeat themselves down the ages and across the world.”
This is the premise for Cohen’s work life, and for this book. Moving through the human experience from youth to old age, he examines anonymous case studies and works of literature that speak to the sorts of situations encountered in that stage. For instance, he recommends Alice in Wonderland as a tonic for the feeling of being stuck – Lewis Carroll’s “let’s pretend” attitude can help someone return to the playfulness and openness of childhood. William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, set during the Spanish flu, takes on new significance for Cohen in the days of Covid as his appointments all move online; he also takes from it the importance of a mother for providing emotional security. A bibliotherapy theme would normally be catnip for me, but I often found the examples too obvious and the discussion too detailed (and thus involving spoilers). Not a patch on The Novel Cure.
(Ebury Press, February 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future by Sam Gilbert
Gilbert worked for Experian before going back to university to study politics; he is now a researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. At a time of much anxiety about “surveillance capitalism,” he seeks to provide reassurance. He explains that Facebook and the like, with their ad-based business models, use profile data and behavioural data to make inferences about you. This is not the same as “listening in,” he is careful to assert. Gilbert contrasts broad targeting and micro-targeting, and runs through trends in search data. He highlights instances where social media and data mining have been beneficial, such as in creating jobs, increasing knowledge, or aiding communication during democratic protests. I have to confess that a lot of this went over my head; I’d overestimated my interest in a full book on technology, having reviewed Born Digital earlier in the year.
(Welbeck, April 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Consequences of Love by Gavanndra Hodge (2020)
In 1989, Hodge’s younger sister Candy died on a family holiday in Tunisia when a rare virus brought on rapid organ failure. The rest of the family exhibited three very different responses to grief: her father retreated into existing addictions, her mother found religion, and she went numb and forgot her sister as much as possible – despite having a photographic memory in general. After her father’s death, Hodge finally found the courage to look back to her early life and the effect of Candy’s death. Hers was no ordinary upbringing; her father was a drug dealer who constantly disappointed her and from her teens on roped her into his substance abuse evenings. Often she was the closest thing to a sober and rational adult in the drug den their home had become. This is a very fluidly written bereavement memoir and a powerful exploration of memory and trauma. It was unfortunate that it felt that little bit too similar to a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years: When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and especially Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.
(Paperback: Penguin, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
The Ghost in the Garden: In Search of Darwin’s Lost Garden by Jude Piesse
When Piesse’s academic career took her back to her home county of Shropshire, she became fascinated by the Darwin family home in Shrewsbury, The Mount. A Victorian specialist, she threw herself into research on the family and particularly on the traces of the garden. Her thesis is that here, and on long walks through the surrounding countryside, Darwin developed the field methods and careful attention that would serve him well as the naturalist on board the Beagle. Piesse believes the habit of looking closely was shared by Darwin and his mother, Susannah. The author contrasts Susannah’s experience of childrearing with her own – she has two young daughters when she returns to Shropshire, and has to work out a balance between work and motherhood. I noted that Darwin lost his mother early – early parent loss is considered a predictor of high achievement (it links one-third of U.S. presidents, for instance).
I think what Piesse was attempting here was something like Rebecca Mead’s wonderful My Life in Middlemarch, but the links just aren’t strong enough: There aren’t that many remnants of the garden or the Darwins here (all the family artefacts are at Down House in Kent), and Piesse doesn’t even step foot into The Mount itself until page 217. I enjoyed her writing about her domestic life and her desire to create a green space, however small, for her daughters, but this doesn’t connect to the Darwin material. Despite my fondness for Victoriana, I was left asking myself what the point of this project was.
(Scribe, May 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle
From the 1970s to 1990s, Picador released over 1,000 paperback volumes with the same clean white-spined design. Royle has acquired most of them – no matter the author, genre or topic; no worries if he has duplicate copies. To build this impressive collection, he has spent years haunting charity shops and secondhand bookshops in between his teaching and writing commitments. He knows where you can get a good bargain, but he’s also willing to pay a little more for a rarer find. In this meandering memoir-of-sorts, he ponders the art of cover design, delights in ephemera and inscriptions found in his purchases (he groups these together as “inclusions”), investigates some previous owners and the provenance of his signed copies, interviews Picador staff and authors, and muses on the few most ubiquitous titles to be found in charity shops (Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, anything by Kathy Lette, and Last Orders by Graham Swift). And he does actually read some of what he buys, though of course not all, and finds some hidden gems.
In 2013 I read Royle’s First Novel, which also features Picador spines on its cover and a protagonist obsessed with them. I’d read enthusiastic reviews by fellow bibliophiles – Paul, Simon, Susan – so couldn’t resist requesting White Spines. While I enjoyed the conversational writing, ultimately I thought it quite an indulgent undertaking (especially the records of his dreams!), not dissimilar to a series of book haul posts. The details of shopping trips aren’t of much interest because he’s solely focused on his own quest, not on giving any insight into the wider offerings of a shop or town, e.g., Hay-on-Wye and Barter Books. But if you’re a fan of Shaun Bythell’s books you may well want to read this too. It’s also a window into the collector’s mindset: You know Royle is an extremist when you read that he once collected bread labels!
(Salt Publishing, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.
Are you interested in reading one or more of these?
Amy Sackville’s debut novel, The Still Point, had been on my radar ever since I read her follow-up, Orkney. I finally put it on my wish list and got a copy for Christmas. In the meantime, I’d also acquired a copy of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World as part of a big secondhand book haul at the start of the first lockdown.
Both books take their title from the eminently quotable T.S. Eliot*, specifically his poem “Burnt Norton.” I couldn’t resist the urge to review them together (along with Rapp’s recent sequel) – although, unlike with my dual review of two books titled Ex Libris, I won’t pit them against each other because they’re such different books.
That said, they do share a dreamlike quality and the search for people and places that might serve as refuges in a shattered life. All:
The Still Point by Amy Sackville (2010)
I am not heroic, I prefer
not to conquer
polar regions, my
gardens in July
serve for me.
~from “emperor’s walk” by G.F. Dutton
A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century. When Edward Mackley went off on his expedition in the early 1900s, he left behind Emily, his devoted, hopeful new bride. She was to live out the rest of her days in the Mackley family home with her brother-in-law and his growing family; Edward never returned. Now Julia and her husband Simon reside in that same Victorian house, serving as custodians of memories and artifacts from her ancestors’ travels and naturalist observations. From one early morning until the next, we peer into this average marriage with its sadness and silences. On this day, Julia discovers a family secret, and late on reveals another of her own, that subtly change how we see her and Emily.
This is a highly fluid and sensual novel, but somehow so sinuous as to be hard to grasp. I took in its interlocking story lines just a few pages at a time; floating on the gorgeous prose, basking in the alternating heat and chill. Sackville’s greatest stylistic debt must be to Virginia Woolf, but I was also reminded of Lucy Wood’s Weathering and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock – two similarly beautiful books in which a house and its ghosts are major characters – and of how some of Sarah Moss’s work braids the past into the everyday. I suspect this won’t be for every reader, but if you can find the right moment and mood, you might just be entranced.
One of Sackville’s research sources was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a work I recently skimmed for a winter post. Two passages that stood out to me apply equally well to Rapp’s books:
“The literature of nineteenth-century arctic exploration is full of coincidence and drama—last-minute rescues, a desperate rifle shot to secure food for starving men, secret letters written to painfully missed loved ones. There are moments of surreal stillness, as in Parry’s journal when he writes of the sound of the human voice in the land. And of tender ministration and quiet forbearance in the face of inevitable death.”
“The continuous work of the imagination, I thought, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution. The conscious desire is to achieve a state, even momentarily, that like light is unbounded, nurturing, suffused with wisdom and creation, a state in which one has absorbed that very darkness which before was the perpetual sign of defeat.”
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp (2013)
In 2011 Rapp’s baby son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a degenerative nerve condition that causes blindness, deafness, seizures, paralysis and, ultimately, death. Tay-Sachs is usually seen in Ashkenazi Jews, so it came as a surprise: Rapp and her husband Rick both had to be carriers, whereas only he was Jewish; they never thought to get tested.
This memoir was written while Ronan was still alive, and the rapid, in-the-thick-of-it composition is evident: it rides the same rollercoaster of feelings over and over again, even repeating some of the same facts. I put this down to the brain fog of anticipatory grief. “The constant push-pull: here but not for long. What will come next?” Rapp quotes extensively from other writers who have grappled with bereavement, especially poets, as if building an inner library to bolster herself against what is to come (“it wasn’t consolation I needed or desired, but the tools to walk through this fire without being consumed by it”).
Rapp puts her son’s life into context through memories of growing up disabled (she had a rare condition that necessitated the amputation of a leg as a child, and wore a prosthesis) in the conservative Midwest, contrasting the Christian theology she grew up in and studied at college with the Eastern and New Age spiritualities that prevail in Santa Fe, where she and Rick then lived with Ronan. She ponders the worth of a life that will be marked by no traditional achievements.
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr advises seven years between the events and the writing about them, but Rapp explains her strategy of instant reaction thus:
grief, this extreme experience, forces a writer to draw on her deepest resources, and such a dive demands so much work that what comes up must be heaved onto the page almost immediately; otherwise it might eat the thinker alive, drown them … Or at least that’s how I felt. You can eat fire for only so long, and then you’ve got to spit it out in another form or risk the burn.
She felt that “rendering loss was a way of honoring life,” which even with this death sentence hanging over the family had its times of pure joy: “there existed inside this helpless, frantic sadness exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace.” The title perfectly captures the necessity of finding this calmness of soul amidst a tumultuous life.
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black (2021)
Things got worse before they got better. As is common for couples who lose a child, Rapp and her first husband separated, soon after she completed her book. In the six months leading up to Ronan’s death in February 2013, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he needed hospice caretakers. Rapp came close to suicide. But in those desperate months, she also threw herself into a new relationship with Kent, a 20-years-older man who was there for her as Ronan was dying and would become her second husband and the father of her daughter, Charlotte (“Charlie”). The acrimonious split from Rick and the astonishment of a new life with Kent – starting in the literal sanctuary of his converted New Mexico chapel, and then moving to California – were two sides of a coin. So were missing Ronan and loving Charlie.
Sanctuary is a similarly allusive text, with each chapter prefaced by a poem, and it is again full of flashbacks, threading all the seemingly disparate parts of a life into a chaotic tapestry. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words that she and her experience got branded with: “brave,” “tragic,” “resilient” – “I unwittingly became the poster child,” she wryly reports. In the same way that she’d been praised for “overcoming disability,” she saw that she was now being trotted out as an example of coping with unimaginable loss. But she didn’t want to be someone’s model; she just wanted the chance to live her life and be happy again. Her wisdom isn’t what makes it onto inspirational stickers, but it’s genuine and hard-won:
“It has little or nothing to do with bravery. Nobody is charging into warfare here. No gold stars are given because none are earned. I am no warrior of love or anything else.”
“Time doesn’t heal anything; it just changes things—reshapes and reorients them.”
“resilience is not always a function of the desire to survive. Either you survive, or you don’t. There’s no fault, no moral judgment, assigned to either outcome.”
“Isn’t it true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No. What doesn’t kill you changes you, and those who chose to love you. That is what it means to bear witness, a unique and salvific form of resilience.”
Although I was glad to have read both, to have experienced both the in-the-moment and the after-the-fact, I think Sanctuary could easily function as a standalone memoir because of how much of Ronan’s illness it relives. For being that bit more measured and wrought, I think it’s the better book by a hair’s breadth. It tames the fire and just radiates the light and warmth.
I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley. Thanks to John Murray Press for the approval.
March has been a huge month for new releases. With so many authors feeling let down about book tours and events being cancelled, it’s a great time for bloggers to step in and help. I attended two virtual book launches on Twitter on the 19th and have another one coming up on the 31st. I also have three more March releases on order from my local indie bookstore: Greenery by Tim Dee, tracking the arrival of spring; Footprints by David Farrier, about the fossil traces modern humans will leave behind; and The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, a novel about violence against women set on the Scottish coast in three different time periods.
Today I have short reviews of five March releases I recommend (plus a bonus one now out in paperback): a Victorian pastiche infused with Scottish folklore, an essay collection about disparate experiences of motherhood, a thriller about victims of domestic violence, poems in graphic novel form, a novel about natural and personal disasters in Australia, and a lovely story of friendship and literature changing a young man’s life forever. All:
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
(Published by Two Roads on the 19th)
Like Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, this is an intense, convincing work of fiction that balances historical realism with magical elements. In mid-1850s Britain, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there is a drive to ensure clean water. Alexander Aird, hired as the on-site physician for the Glasgow waterworks, moves to the Loch Katrine environs with his wife, Isabel, who has had eight miscarriages or stillbirths. With no living babies requiring her care, Isabel spends her days wandering the hills and meets a strange scarecrow of a man, Reverend Robert Kirke … who died in 1692.
A real-life Episcopalian minister, Kirke wrote a book about fairies and other Celtic supernatural beings and, legend has it (as recounted by Sir Walter Scott and others), was taken into the faery realm after his death and continued to walk the earth looking for rest. It takes a while for Isabel to learn the truth about Kirke – though her servant, Kirsty McEchern, immediately intuits that something isn’t right about the man – and longer still to understand that he wants something from her. “Whatever else, Robert Kirke could be relied on to ruffle this mind of hers that was slowly opening to experience again, and to thinking, and to life.”
This was a rollicking read that drew me in for its medical elements (premature birth, a visit to Joseph Lister, interest in Florence Nightingale’s nursing methods) as well as the plot. It often breaks from the omniscient third-person voice to give testimonies from Kirsty and from Kirke himself. There are also amusing glimpses into the Royal household when Victoria and Albert stay at Balmoral and return to open the waterworks during the “heaviest, windiest, most umbrella-savaging, face-slashing deluge that Scotland had experienced in twenty years.” Best of all, it gives a very different picture of women’s lives in the Victorian period.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The Best Most Awful Job: Twenty Writers Talk Honestly about Motherhood, edited by Katherine May
(Published by Elliott & Thompson on the 19th)
These are essays for everyone who has had a mother – not just everyone who has been a mother. I enjoyed every piece separately, but together they form a vibrant collage of women’s experiences. Care has been taken to represent a wide range of situations and attitudes. The reflections are honest about physical as well as emotional changes, with midwife Leah Hazard (author of Hard Pushed) kicking off with an eye-opening rundown of the intimate scarring some mothers will have for the rest of their lives. We hear from a mother of six who’s “addicted” to pregnancy (Jodi Bartle), but also from a woman who, after an ectopic pregnancy, realized “there are lots of ways to mother, even if your body won’t let you” (Peggy Riley, in one of my two favorite pieces in the book).
Women from BAME communities recount some special challenges related to cultural and family expectations, but others that are universal. An autistic mother (Joanne Limburg) has to work out how to parent a neurotypical child; queer parents (including author Michelle Tea) wonder how to raise a son at a time of toxic masculinity. There are also several single mothers, one of them disabled (Josie George – hers was my other favorite essay; do follow her on Twitter via @porridgebrain if you don’t already).
What I most appreciated is that these authors aren’t saying what they think they should say about motherhood; they’re willing to admit to boredom, disappointment and rage: “motherhood is an infinite, relentless slog from which there is no rest or recuperation … a ceaseless labour, often devoid of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation” (Javaria Akbar); “I step barefoot on a rogue piece of Lego and it’s game over. I scream” (Saima Mir). These are punchy, distinctive slices of life writing perfectly timed for Mother’s Day. I plan to pass the book around my book club; mothers or not, I know everyone will appreciate it.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Keeper by Jessica Moor
(Published by Viking/Penguin on the 19th)
Val McDermid and Jeanette Winterson are among the fans of this, Penguin’s lead debut title of 2020. When a young woman is found drowned at a popular suicide site in the Manchester area, the police plan to dismiss the case as an open-and-shut suicide. But the others at the women’s shelter where Katie Straw worked aren’t convinced, and for nearly the whole span of this taut psychological thriller readers are left to wonder if it was suicide or murder.
The novel alternates between chapters marked “Then” and “Now”: in the latter story line, we follow the police investigation and meet the women of the refuge; in the former, we dive into Katie’s own experience of an abusive relationship back in London. While her mother was dying of cancer she found it comforting to have a boyfriend who was so attentive to her needs, but eventually Jamie’s obsessive love became confining.
I almost never pick up a mystery, but this one was well worth making an exception for. I started suspecting the twist at maybe the two-thirds point, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Based on Moor’s year working in the violence against women sector, it’s a gripping and grimly fascinating story of why women stay with their abusers and what finally drives them to leave.
I picked up a proof copy at a Penguin Influencers event.
Poems to See by: A Comic Artist Interprets Great Poetry by Julian Peters
(To be published by Plough Publishing House on the 31st)
Peters is a comics artist based in Montreal. Here he has chosen 24 reasonably well-known poems by the likes of e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti and W.B. Yeats and illustrated each one in a markedly different fashion. From black-and-white manga to a riot of color and music, from minimalist calligraphy-like Japanese watercolor to imitations of Brueghel, there is such a diversity of style here that at first I presumed there were multiple artists involved (as in one of my favorite graphic novels of last year, ABC of Typography, where the text was written by one author but each chapter had a different illustrator). But no, this is all Peters’ work; I was impressed by his versatility.
The illustrations range from realistic to abstract, with some more obviously cartoon-like. A couple of sequences reminded me of the style of Raymond Briggs. For “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, lines are inlaid on the squares of a painted patchwork quilt. Other sets look to have been done via wood engraving, or with old-fashioned crayons. You could quibble with the more obvious poetry selections, but I encountered a few that were new to me, including “Buffalo Dusk” by Carl Sandburg and “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peters has grouped them into six thematic categories: self, others, art, nature, time and death. Teenagers, especially, will enjoy the introduction to a variety of poets and comics styles.
I read an e-copy via NetGalley.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts
(Published by ONE/Pushkin on the 5th)
“Emergency police fire, or ambulance?” The young female narrator of this debut novel lives in Sydney and works for Australia’s emergency call service. Over her phone headset she gets appalling glimpses into people’s worst moments: a woman cowers from her abusive partner; a teen watches his body-boarding friend being attacked by a shark. Although she strives for detachment, her job can’t fail to add to her anxiety – already soaring due to the country’s flooding and bush fires.
Against that backdrop of natural disasters, a series of minor personal catastrophes play out. The narrator is obsessed with a rape/murder case that’s dominating the television news, and narrowly escapes sexual assault herself. She drinks to excess, keeps hooking up with her ex-boyfriend, Lachlan, even after he gets a new girlfriend, and seems to think abortion and the morning after pill are suitable methods of birth control. Irresponsible to the point of self-sabotage, she’s planning a move to London but in the meantime is drifting through life, resigned to the fact that there is no unassailable shelter and no surefire way to avoid risk.
The title comes from the quest of John Oxley (presented here as the narrator’s ancestor), who in 1817 searched for a water body in the Australian interior. Quotations from his journals and discussions of the work of Patrick White, the subject of Lachlan’s PhD thesis, speak to the search for an Australian identity. But the inland sea is also the individual psyche, contradictory and ultimately unknowable. Like a more melancholy version of Jenny Offill’s Weather or a more cosmic autofiction than Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist, this is a timely, quietly forceful story of how women cope with concrete and existential threats.
My thanks to the publisher for the PDF copy for review.
And a bonus…
The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
(Paperback published by Bloomsbury on the 5th)
With the Second World War only recently ended and nothing awaiting him apart from the coal mine where his father works, sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard sets out on a journey. From his home in County Durham, he walks southeast, doing odd jobs along the way in exchange for food and lodgings. One day he wanders down a lane near Robin Hood’s Bay and gets a surprisingly warm welcome from a cottage owner, middle-aged Dulcie Piper, who invites him in for tea and elicits his story. Almost accidentally, he ends up staying for the rest of the summer, clearing scrub and renovating her garden studio.
Dulcie is tall, outspoken and unconventional – I pictured her as (Meryl Streep as) Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia. She introduces Robert to whole new ways of thinking: that not everyone believes in God, that Germans might not be all bad, that life can be about adventure and pleasure instead of duty. “The offing” is a term for the horizon, as well as the title of a set of poems Robert finds in the dilapidated studio, and both literature and ambition change his life forever. Bright, languid and unpredictable, the novel delights in everyday sensual pleasures like long walks with a dog, dips in the ocean and an abundance of good food. I can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s quite like it – how refreshing is that?
I pre-ordered the paperback using a Waterstones voucher I got for Christmas.
What recent releases can you recommend?
These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.
When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.
Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.
It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)
(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.
Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.
The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.
Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.
“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”
Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”
“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”
See also Susan’s review.
It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.
When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:
- every book I read
- every movie I saw
- dreams, recounted in detail
- money I found on the ground
- items I bought or sold on eBay
- gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
- transactions made through my mail-order music club
- all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing
Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.
What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.
Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a child … if I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.
This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.
My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.
That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.
Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”
A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:
In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.
I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!
As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.
I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?
As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.
Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?
How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?
Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:
“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”
“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”
There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)
In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.
In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.
Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”
I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)
Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)
I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.
With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.
I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.
Some favorite lines:
Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”
“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”
“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”
Did you manage to read any Irish literature this month?
This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:
That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.
Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.
Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.
The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.
The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.
“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”
“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”
The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongate 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.