Tag Archives: Costa Novel Award

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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The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 for The Gathering. She has since been regarded as one of the foremost Irish writers of our time. The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction (as it was called in 2012). The Green Road was published last year. It did well – Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Irish Novel of the Year, Costa Novel Award short list and choice of the year for several people. It has also gained a few blog endorsements. I read one review, however, which dismissed the novel as clichéd. While some of the situations may be very familiar in Irish history (and life), Anne Enright’s treatment is anything but a cliché. Here’s why.

231 Gr Rd cover

The story and structure of the novel

Rosaleen Madigan lives in County Clare. By 2005 her four children have grown up and away: Hanna is an alcoholic failed actress with post-natal depression; Constance stayed, married a local man who makes a good living in the Irish building boom of the early 2000s; Emmet works for NGOs to save lives in the developing world; Dan went to be a priest and decided he was gay and lives in Toronto.

In part one we see the family members in a number of different episodes, distant from each other and from their parents: Hanna as a child in 1980; Dan in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991; Constance having a cancer check in 1997; Emmet in Mali breaking up with yet another lover in 2002. Their separate lives make their connections to each other tenuous. By the end of the first section the reader knows much more about the lives of the four Madigan children than their family members ever will.

In the second part, narrated in one timeframe, 2005, they are together in County Clare. Rosaleen, now widowed, has summoned her children to a Christmas reunion. None of the four bring partners or children except Constance who lives locally and does much of the fetching and carrying and organising. Their separation is emphasised by the festivities. Rosaleen adds to the discomfort when she goes missing for a while on a walk in the darkness, and the dramas continue even after they find her. No much is resolved by the conclusion.

Themes

The novel is concerned with connections and absence of connections within families; the pull of the past, relatives, place, personal histories and myths; how individuals and families face challenges; compassion for the difficulties of others; the change of parental role from providing care to neediness. ‘It’s about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.’ (LRB video see below)

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

Rosaleen’s disappearance highlights how she and the landscape are the only connections between the family members, and they are not that strong. Her decision to sell the family home, Ardeevin, creates tensions. She has reminded her children that they have little invested in their past. They are shocked by the prospect of Rosaleen moving, but then realise that it makes no difference, except for Constance with whom she threatens to move in.

The writing

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright is a compelling writer. She has referred to ‘the pleasure of the sentence’. I found the section on New York and the gay community unbearably sad.

The story is small, undramatic, although individual episodes in the first part have plenty of action. As Emmet observes, they live ‘small lives’. Not much happens to the family except that Rosaleen goes missing. But within the small spaces a great deal is revealed about families and relationships. Here are some examples.

Emmet prepares for the reunion in his house in Dublin. He says goodbye to his Dutch girlfriend and then waits for Hanna to arrive for their journey to Ardeevin.

Then he faced back into the horrors of the Madigans – their small hearts (his own was not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through. Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.

Mother.

His stupid sister late, as ever. (210)

Emmet’s awareness does not help him in his relationships with women. His compassion is reserved for those in the countries he works in.

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Constance, of course Constance, meets Dan at Shannon Airport and as they drive to Ardeevin he looks out of the window of her Lexus.

As they travelled towards home, the landscape accumulated in Dan like a silt of meaning that was disturbed by the line of the hedgerow or the sight of winter trees along a ridge. All at once it was familiar. He knew this place. It was a secret he carried inside himself; a map of things he had known and lost, these half glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid green. (203)

The image of the ‘silt of meaning’ carried around from childhood is a powerful one. Many of the aspects of childhood in this family are silted up. The landscape runs through the novel, surfacing every now and again – Constance’s first trip to the clinic, Rosaleen’s walk in darkness, and Dan’s experience on arrival. The town in which Rosaleen lives is never named ‘to give a sense of elsewhere’ to the landscape. The Green Road that gives the novel its title is exists.

The description of Constance’s pre-Christmas shopping trip is terrifying. The excess of buying, the volume of stuff, the return for yet more, all conveyed in calm prose, a huge list – it is powerful a statement of Constance’s life and values.

Anne Enright seems to be saying that life is hard; relationships, especially those you are born into, but others you take on, they are difficult however you choose to live your life.

That mean-spirited blog review which suggested The Green Road is clichéd and Anne Enright over-rated made me look more closely at her skill. While the outline of the characters may be clichéd her skill is to capture, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, the silences and shifts between people.

The Green Road by Anne Enright, published in 2015 by Vintage 310 pp

Related

The books that I loved in 2015 by James Wood in the New Yorker, 4th January 2016.

LRB video 9 minutes, from which Anne Enright’s quotations are taken.

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How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

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