Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

The Vegetarian img 2

This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!

‘Stay With Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay-with-Me imgThis was April’s choice for my book club and one of the members described it as the best book we have read – she consumed it in virtually one sitting in the middle of the night when she was wide awake with jet lag! A fine endorsement indeed. It really is a marvellous book and, as I so often say on this blog, totally unfair that one so young should exhibit this much talent in a debut novel! It has also been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (winner to be annonced on 7 June), so it’s hot.

 

 

 

 

The blurb on the jacket is cryptic:

“There are things even love can’t do…if the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It’s hard to provide a review without giving away too much, because the twists and turns of the plot are a joy. It’s also a very tough read at times, so be prepared for some challenging parts.

The first chapter is set in 2008 but only makes sense once you have finished the book, so do come back to it. The book starts proper in 1985 when we first meet Yejide and Akin, a young married couple living in Ilesa in Nigeria. They are a thoroughly modern couple enjoying a happy middle class life, he a successful banker, she a beautician with her own business. Their relationship is placed under severe strain, however, because they are infertile. They themselves are very much in love and seem quite happy with their lot, but their respective families have high expectations of children. Thus they come up against powerful cultural forces; both are children of polygamous households and this contrasts forcefully with their much more enlightened outlook.

There is superstition and witchcraft here too. Quite early on, under unbearable pressure, Yejide turns to traditional quackery to conceive and ends up developing what can only be described as a mental illness where she develops a phantom pregnancy that lasts nearly eighteen months. Akin, on the other hand, is under pressure from his own side to take a second wife, as it is considered the priority is to produce a child not to have a happy marriage. The tussle between modern and traditional ways of thinking create mistrust and betrayal in Akin and Yejide’s relationship where previously there was only love and passion.

This is all played out against the backdrop of social and political unrest in Nigeria in the 1980s. I was hoping this would play a bigger part in the novel having enjoyed so profoundly Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimimande Ngozi Adiche) a few years ago, but it’s not that kind of book. The political upheaval going on in the background is there more as a metaphor for transition, what happens when society is forced to evolve out of its traditions. It also helps with the plot later on.

The pace of this book is fast, but it loses nothing in quality for being so. It’s a brilliant plot, jaw-dropping even. The writing is breathtaking and at times deeply moving. So, I must say no more, only go and read it and enjoy!

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it?

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‘In the Dutch Mountains’ by Cees Nooteboom

As a mother of three, I find it is always a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a school holiday. I am self-employed and work from home so I tend to take the holidays ‘off’ (insofar as one is ever ‘off’ as a parent!), but it always seems to take me a week or so to restore the term-time order of things and get back into my rhythm, including my reading rhythm. The dynamic at home has also been affected by the fact that my eldest is deep in GCSE revision and now on study leave, wanting feeding during the day and everything!

We took a short family holiday to the Netherlands over Easter, a country we know well and have visited annually for many years now. We spend our time either in Amsterdam (a fab city for kids, by the way) or in the far south of the country in Zeeland, a fascinating area for which I have a very deep affection. I’m a bit reluctant to plug it because it’s authentic and unspoilt, but we love the cycling, the beaches, the space, the calm, the beautiful and historic Dutch and Belgian towns and the warm welcome we receive each time we go there.

Despite my love of Holland, its art and architecture and its people, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about its literature, so on this trip I decided to take with me a book called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. He is one of the giants of not only the Dutch but also the wider European literary tradition. I picked up this book at a secondhand stall in a market in Dublin, so this particular copy is well-travelled!

Since starting this blog almost a year ago my reading habits have changed; I now find I am reading much more newly-published work than I have ever done before, which is great, but that has been at the expense of my reading of the classics or other contemporary fiction from recent years which I have wanted to read. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all! So, it felt lovely to be picking up a novel that was first published in 1984 and is widely considered to be a modern classic.

2017-04-26 13.45.25What is so immediately intriguing about the title of the novel, of course, is that Holland is very, very flat. But In the Dutch Mountains imagines a world where the Netherlands extends much further south of its modern borders to northern Spain and the Pyrenees (hence the Dutch mountains). The narrator is himself a Spaniard, a civil servant who not only relates the story, but also philosophises on the processes of writing and story-telling: a story within a story. The main characters in the tale are Kai and Lucia, a slightly other-worldly circus couple, remarkable for their physical perfection, who are relieved of their jobs (because times have moved on and audience tastes have changed) and find themsleves travelling south to look for work. Kai is kidnapped and Lucia sets out on a journey to find him, accompanied by an old woman she meets on the way who agrees to drive her to find her lover.

The book is a vivid re-telling and reinterpretation of an iconic European fairy-tale, The Ice Queen, and explores the boundaries between myth and reality, but as a 21st century reader the strongest themes that came out for me were that of migration (for work), and what it means to be one nationality or another. The author contrasts the orderly, tidy north (what we now know as Holland) and the more chaotic, but freer south. He himself is Dutch but his narrator is part of the Spanish establishment (an inspector of roads), who happens to be a part-time novelist and philosopher. Alfonso, the narrator, is writing in the quiet of a school, empty of children who are on their summer holiday, a middle-aged adult sitting at a diminutive desk and chair. Thus the novel sets up a whole series of contradictions which invite us to challenge our assumptions and expectations.

This is a short novel, but one which merits reading slowly and deeply, and I will probably re-read it at some point. It won the 1993 European Prize for Literature.  It was a curious read and I can’t exactly say I loved it, but I did find it fascinating, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think it’s always good to push your reading boundaries and as I read this book I certainly found myself drawn into a very different literary tradition than the one I have become used to in recent years. As a citizen of a nation that has expressed its intention to leave the European Union I feel strongly that European literature has a great deal to offer us in terms of enhancing our understanding of and empathy with our near neighbours, and I intend to read more of it in the future.

What European novels have you read? Do you think they are different in style and tone to English literature?

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