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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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Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Readers need something different from time to time. It’s the equivalent of a palate cleanser; or a short sleep in the afternoon when you had a really bad night; or a ballad when you have bombarded yourself with 19th century Austro-Germanic music. Sometimes poetry will do, or a short story. And here’s a perfect way to refresh the reading mind: a translated novella. But be warned, this is not fiction lite.

Written originally in Catalan in 1985, Stone in a Landslide was translated by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell and published by Peirene Press in 2010. It’s a gem.

112 Stone coverThe story is told in 126 pages by Conxa, looking back in her old age. At the age of 13 she leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt and uncle in a nearby village on the hillside. It is the 1920s. Conxa lives a patient and level headed life, supported by Tia and Oncle, and later married to Jaume with whom she has three children. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change. Even Barcelona is a distant place, from where cousins visit every summer. In the 1930s the Spanish Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken away.

This is the quiet story of a woman living on the land, valuing family connections, friends, differences and respect built up by years of honouring and community interdependence. Large events shape life, as do poverty, the seasons, the demands of land and animals. And inevitably the modern world forces its changes and the family can no longer subsist in the village and by the conclusion of the novella Conxa has gone to live in her old age with her son in Barcelona.

The title’s significance becomes apparent in the third section as external events intrude increasingly upon her life. Taken to a prison with her children because of Jaume’s Republican connection, she likens herself to a stone.

They take us to Montsent prison. I didn’t even know where it was. The worst is not knowing anything. Elvira [her daughter] moves around and talks to everyone, even the jailers. She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days … (p89)

A stone is lost among others in a landslide, but the landslide depends on the individual stones. Each stone is affected by those around it; a landslide is dangerous and changes the landscape. The stone is an image that reappears in later pages. For example: moved to a camp the family endure a long period of waiting. She says, ‘The days weighed on my heart like flagstones.’ (p99)

Reflecting on the disappearance of Jaume, she employs another image that stings when you read, and lingers in the memory:

I knew he was dead and I would never again have him at my side because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.’ (p95-6)

The imagery arises from the harsh rural landscape into which she was born, and where she worked and raised her family. You can see from these short extracts that Stone in a Landslide is written in simple, short sentences and in language relevant to the rural community.

There are moments of exquisite pleasure, as when Conxa and her friend Delina go picking mushrooms.

We left at daybreak and at the beginning we were as excited as little girls because finally we had enough time to talk to each other properly. When the going got steep, though, we held our tongues to save our breath.

I liked this outing. I was in the meadows, following the darker grass of the tracks thinking about nothing except finding a big patch of mushrooms and filling my basket. The walk was hard but, after going up so far, it was easy enough to walk down again. From where we were we could see all the villages as if they were close by, with the black slates of the roofs and the occasional plume of smoke revealing signs of life. We stopped at the top to eat, red-faced and with a light wind on our necks, before we started the painstaking search for mushrooms. (p66-7)

But you do not get the feeling that her life has ended as she wanted. The landslide has brought her, as so many others, to the city. In this case to Barcelona. Conxa is estranged from the urban life, emphasised by paragraphs that begin ‘Barcelona is … ‘

Barcelona is having the sky far away and the stars trembling. It is a damp sky and very grey rain.

Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes, hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sounds of the animals at home as you look at dogs chained at dusk.

Barcelona is a small loaf of bread which is finished every day and milk from a bottle, very white, with no cream and a thin taste.

Barcelona is wordless noise and a thick silence full of memories. (p124-5)

Maria Barbal

Maria Barbal

Once again, congratulations to Peirene Press for the innovative approach to publishing and bringing to English readers such a wealth of translated novellas. You will find reviews of The Mussel Feast by Birgit Venderbeke, and Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, both published by Peirene Press, on this blog.

Another blog review of Stone in a Landslide, in the context of translations, can be found on Book Snob.

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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