Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

From time to time I reread books that have meant a great deal to me. The Eagle of the Ninth was a book I loved in childhood. And I enjoyed rereading it recently for its Romano-British adventure, for the sassy female character and for Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling.

I consumed a great deal of historical fiction after this, and wonder if Rosemary Sutcliff contributed to my decision to read history at University?

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila, who grew up in Italy, has his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), in the second century AD. After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion. Marcus’s father had commanded the cohort when it disappeared after marching north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD.

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus, and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Roman rule is still in operation. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.

In the Introduction to The Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure, with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way, better than your Roman soldier. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue and held in the hands of an important person. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism of the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire.

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations did not spoil my rereading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eagle starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I have not seen it so I do not know how faithful it is to the novel, but it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted, because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand, Donald Sutherland seems to me an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press, which it is still on their list, not only because it has just been filmed.

Over to you

What novels from childhood do you reread? Have you any thoughts on The Eagle of the Ninth?

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

God’s Own Country is a grim story about a young lad who finds himself in opposition to his parents’ generation, the newcomers to the Yorkshire Moors and their class, ramblers, neighbours, and eventually the law. Sam Marsdyke’s story illustrates a highly divided country: generation against generation; urban against rural; class against class; even the experiences of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside brings people into conflict.

The Story

Sam Marsdyke (19) is the only son of a farming couple living on the Moors. He has a bad reputation because he was caught with a girl at school and there was an alleged rape. The story is told in the first person, so we only have Sam’s version for what happened. New people move into the farm next door, not to farm but to live in ‘God’s Own Country’ and they have a daughter, Jo Reeves (15), on whom Sam becomes fixated.

Jo has her own difficulties with her parents, not least that she didn’t want to move away from London, specifically from Muswell Hill. She visits Sam as he works on the farm, and eventually proposes that they run away, and so they do, across the Yorkshire Moors until they reach the sea at Whitby.

Their impetuous escapade becomes a progressive nightmare, as neither the girl not Sam makes any plan or has any sense of reality. Sam in particular becomes less realistic as their flight proceeds, until he believes he has to restrain the girl. She had no plan but to frighten her parents into noticing her anger.

The novel’s strengths

When it was published in 2008 God’s Own Country attracted lots of good attention, especially as it was Ross Raisin’s first published novel. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Betty Trask Award and for International Dublin Literary Award in 2010.

The judges of the International Dublin Literary Award commented:

Marsdyke’s flight across the Yorkshire Moors is a journey from civility into depravation but also a desperate, anarchic rush for freedom, which completely absorbs and overwhelms the reader. Written with an extraordinary verbal ingenuity and a riotous play with dialect, this is a fresh and vivid novel which challenges our view of those who slip through the conventional nets of sanity.

Sam is brilliantly realised, through his own voice: his language, his continuous inner commentary, his anger and his imagination are all brilliantly evoked. Here is the opening, somewhat challenging as I walk a great deal.

Ramblers. Daft sods in pink and green hats. It wasn’t even cold. They moved down the field swing-swaying like a line of drunks, addled with the air and the land, and the smell of manure. (1)

The evocation of the Moors, a landscape in which Sam is entirely familiar, is in his characteristic voice.

I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors. That was the best time, when the Moors were coming alive with creatures waking in the heather, and the dark was shifting to reveal a mighty heap of heather spreading fifty miles to the sea. This new family weren’t fussed about that, mind. Their sort were loopy for farmhouses – oh we must move there, the North Yorks Moors is God’s own country – but they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window. They knew nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren’t towns or villages drying it all up. (9)

First person narrative novels require skill to bring off. Sam frequently speaks in the voice of others (as in that quotation), which reveals his attitudes, and that he is often mistaken about people, and about Jo in particular. He manages to tell us the story of their adventure on the Moors, and reveal to us his unreliability both as a narrator, but also as a young adult. And, he manages to retain some of our sympathy, despite the situation in which he puts the young girl.

My trip to Yorkshire

During the recent hot weather I spent a few days in Yorkshire walking with a friend. The photographs are from our walks near Grassington. We enjoyed ourselves greatly, but were frequently frustrated by the lack of signs for the routes and footpaths.

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, published in 2008. I read the Penguin edition. 211pp

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6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge

So that’s it! The challenge is over, the last walk walked, the last post posted and you can still donate.

  • I have walked 129km (about 75 miles)
  • I written 9 posts on this blog for the challenge
  • I have raised a total of £1779.58
  • I have learned six things.

All this was in aid of Freedom from Torture a British charity that works to support people who have been tortured. And in particular it was to support Freedom from Torture’s writing group, the Write to Life group.

What I learned from the Challenge

Another purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, people who have been subjected to torture, and of the work of Freedom from Torture to support these refugees.

  1. People care about refugees and their treatment

People walked with me, sponsored the cause, retweeted the links to the posts, liked and shared the facebook announcements, and asked me how it was going. Some people went out of their way to give support, like Paul, who led the Dartmoor Walk in the New Year; and Marianne who organised a walk in Hertfordshire. The donations came from friends, family, colleagues, other supporters, and two writers I know from Canada and America (I think they and currency exchanges are responsible for the 58p.)

Thank you for your support, one and all.

Refugees from Kabul

Refugees from Kabul receiving winter clothes from ISAF Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

  1. People are horrified by torture

I have seen members of the Write to Life group perform two plays Souvenirs and Lost and Found. The souvenirs of torture are physical and mental. Recovery is slow and perhaps incomplete. Writing can help. Exile is like being cut in half. At both performances the audience was moved.

  1. Narrative is a good way to enable insights about the lives of refugees

Many of the posts for the challenge featured fiction. All narratives were rooted in the authenticity of people’s lived experiences. Many posts featured short stories, an appropriate way to retell the varieties of experiences. These nuggets, even those relating to experiences over 30 years ago, such as the Vietnamese experiences, are still powerful.

  1. People migrate

It seems baffling to me that migration has been as fundamental to human history and as pervasive as language, agriculture, and relationships. Yet in our current world, the policies enacted appear to be based on the idea that political boundaries can stop people migrating. The stark truth is that birth is all. In this world where you are born decides whether you will need to risk the crossing of the Mediterranean or not.

And with their policies of exclusion in place, governments do not respond to the reality of migration, the movement of people, to the fact of migration and the causes behind it: war, realpolitik, climate change, exploitation, religious and ethnic hatred, sexual exploitation …

Having exposed the exclusionary and neglectful policies of the EU, Wolfgang Bauer’s final words in Crossing the Sea resonate: Have mercy!

  1. Writing can open people’s eyes

Writing by the Write to Life Group, telling the story of their lives, before, during and after has opened people’s eyes as well as helped the writers.

All the works referred to in the posts, fictional, semi-fictional, journalistic, historic, these draw attention to what needs attention. And provide insights into experiences we would rather ignore.

  1. There is more I could tell you

When I planned the challenge and what I would post on the blog, I intended to explore more non-bookish topics.

I wanted to tell readers about my experiences with a young lad, unaccompanied, whom I befriended through Freedom from Torture.

I wanted to post a short story I wrote called Seeking Asylum.

I wanted to inform readers of the schools I worked in that helped youngsters to understand what had happened in their lives and how to move onwards. We pioneered exemplary practice, sometimes very challenging, to help youngster take up education as quickly as possible, and to help them integrate their own stories.

I wanted to shock readers with a post on the statistics of migration, refugees and torture. 71,000 people have entered Europe from the sea in 2017. An estimated 1778 are missing. (Figures at 2nd June from UNHCR data portal.)

And I still can do all these things, of course.

What I achieved

My target was £1600 and I raised a total of £1779.58: £1458.33 plus Gift Aid £321.25.

My walk target was 10km (about 6.2 miles) per month, 80km, and I achieved 129km. Sometimes I walked alone, often with a friend or brother and sometimes in a group, with about 40 different people. You can see where I walked on the Page about the challenge.

I posted every month, on a refugee-related topic, mostly bookish, and included a brief description of the nominated walk, nine posts in all (two in December).

And finally …

You can still donate, through my Just Giving Page.

Here are the texts I referred to in these posts

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

Souvenirs, the play written and performed by members of the Write to Life group, is available to buy from Freedom from Torture.

And here are links to the posts and related websites

The Challenge page on this website

Crossing the Sea with Syrians by Wolfgang Bauer, 9th walk along the shore.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 8th walk in Italy.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/8440318774/”>ResoluteSupportMedia</a> via <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/1bed96″>Visualhunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”> CC BY</a>

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the outcomes of the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

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Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2017

This year the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize is

The Power by Naomi Alderman

 

As in previous years I give you the short and long lists and all previous winners, because it’s so good to have 37 excellent books by women listed in one place!

And a special mention for Helen Dunmore, the first winner, who died on the 5th June 2017.

The short list (April 2017)

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The long longlist, with links.

 

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize.

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997)

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

 

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is outstanding. I would probably have read it because of the cover alone. But last year The Essex Serpent and its cover took Twitter by storm. And it has been the centre of attention since as it racked up the awards:

  • Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
  • Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize
  • Long-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize
  • Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize
  • British Book Awards Fiction Book and overall Book of the Year in May 2017.

And it is now out in paperback.

The Story

The story is set in London and Essex, of course, in 1893, and spans twelve months. We begin as Cora Seabourne is widowed. The marriage has been abusive, so there is relief as well as grief. In his last days he had been attended by the brilliant surgeon, Luke Garrett. Nicknamed The Imp for his unusual appearance, Luke has few social skills, few friends, but total confidence in his medical abilities and falls for Cora.

Cora also has a son of about 7. Francis is also distant, and perhaps has a compulsive obsessive disorder. His main support is Martha, Cora’s companion.

Cora inherits enough money for an independent life, and she decides to follow Mary Anning in pursuit of palaeontology, but in Essex rather than Dorset. This is the era when religious faith was challenged by Darwin’s ideas. In the Essex village of Aldwinter the vicar, William Ransome, is struggling with a population who believe that strange goings-on are God’s punishment for their failings. There is a belief in an Essex Serpent, who lives in Blackwater Estuary, in the liminal space between river and sea. There are reports of strange sightings, unexplained disappearances, sickness and dark shapes in the water …

Cora and William are attracted to each other by their lively interest in the world and explanations of how life is. Their story runs alongside the unravelling of the mysteries of the Serpent.

A gothic style?

Genre is not my strong point, but I have frequently read that The Essex Serpent is gothic and it does have a dark mystery or two and an unseen monster, and many characters, many of whom don’t fit well into Victorian society, odd balls, radicals, misfits, and a beautiful woman wracked with TB.

The mysterious, mythical and malign Essex Serpent is attractive to many of the people in the novel, being in some cases the receptacle of their fears. The characters are suitably complex, not sure what they want or believe, or able to dispense with alternative beliefs that contradict each other.

Not everything works out as one might expect. For example, marriage is not considered by Cora or Martha as the next desirable step in life. Martha has socialist ideas, and sees marriage as a form of prison. Cora is enjoying an unconventional life allowed by independence in widowhood.

And sexual love, while present, is not the main motivation of the various relationships in this novel. Rather, friendship between men, women, adults and children is the most positive force, along with a sense of community.

This novel has a great deal to do with rationalism and superstition. While they are in opposition some of the time, it is also clear that they are not exclusive, and one human can entertain both simultaneously.

What I liked about The Essex Serpent

The cover, designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris.

The rich cast of characters, some rural and some enjoying the privileges of Victorian wealth. It must have been an exciting time for medicine, geology, palaeontology and socialist ideas.

I love it that the women in this novel are not sweet and swoony.

I liked the way that life moved through these people and left them with more understanding.

And I enjoyed the setting: the landscape of coastal Essex, the estuary, the natural life, the sounds and sights that unfold throughout the year. Essex is an underrated county. Here we are in June as Cora takes a walk:

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. (230)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, first published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. Now available in paperback. 418pp

 

Related posts

Booksnob reviewed The Essex Serpent in July 2016. She had some criticisms of the sub-plotting, but generally thought it was a marvellous read.

Helen Parry reviewing for ShinyNewBooks was similarly enthusiastic.

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