The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

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The beautiful William Morris-y design gracing the cover of The Essex Serpent was what first sparked my interest in this book. It was also enough to attract the attention of two strangers who separately approached me to enquire what I was reading. On one of those occasions I ended up drawn into a long (but interesting) conversation about Victorian novels until, hey presto, lunchbreak was over and I was supposed to be back at my desk fifteen minutes ago. Ooops.  But still, it’s nice the way a pretty book can bring strangers together.

On the face of it this book is everything I usually love: not-so-stuffy Victorians, a strong and intelligent female lead, tons of gothic drama and atmosphere, a mythical threat and a bit of social conscience. The leading lady, Cora Seabourne, is a young widow and amateur fossil hunter who heads to the marshy Essex countryside for some rest and relaxation following the death of her husband. Curiosity at the bizarre rumours of a winged serpent terrorising local fishermen attract her to the village of Aldwinter where she sparks up a friendship with the harassed local vicar William Ransome. The novel focuses partly on the hysteria and superstition arising from the supposed mythical beast but also on the effect that her rapport with Ramsome has on them both and those they love.

The setting, I think, is possibly the thing I enjoyed most about this book. I often find that I particularly warm to books with a strong sense of place so Perry’s haunting descriptions of the bleak, wintery marshes rang really true to me. It’s also the case that in books and in real life I’m naturally drawn to this kind of flat landscape myself (see: WaterworldGreat Expectations, The Nine Taylors…) so maybe I just felt quite at home in Aldwinter. It’s the perfect setting for a mythical beast dragging unsuspecting men fresh from the alehouse to their deaths beneath the waves. I also think it lends itself really well to a story like this one where tension and atmosphere are so important. Combined with Perry’s beautifully lyrical writing style this makes an eerie, almost otherworldly tale at times.

 “Each was only second best and they wore each other like hand-me-down coats.”

I couldn’t help thinking that in the end, sadly, too much of The Essex Serpent was given over to the growing friendship between Cora and Ransome and as much as I enjoyed watching this unfold at the beginning I found it to be a bit of a distraction towards the end when the narrative tension should really have been at its height. I didn’t dislike either party particularly but it occurred to me afterwards that I found every other character more compelling and would have liked more of them instead. In the main, though, I think my problem is that I was just a bit disappointed that the serpent didn’t feature more prominently or that the answers to my many questions weren’t answered in the way I wanted them to be. It felt a little bit like a clever plot had been swept aside in favour of some romance and melodrama that weren’t enough on their own to keep the momentum going. I’d have liked a twist, a reveal, something, to keep me interested but it just wasn’t there.

This book hasn’t been relegated to the charity shop just yet; I think I enjoyed it enough to keep hold of it for now and it will look quite pretty on my shelves (when I find some space for it). I’ve since read Albert Camus’ The Plague  – a 99p Oxfam shop find – and was struck by some of the similarities, and differences, between this and The Essex Serpent (although I’m aware that this isn’t a fair comparison to either author). I’m working on a short post on this now and should have something up here soon.

 

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Katherine (1954) by Anya Seton

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Finally finishing this book at the weekend was a truly wonderful, joyous thing that can be traced back to a very mundane circumstance several weeks ago: I had to work between Christmas and New Year and while my colleagues were at home enjoying happy family fun times I enjoyed three beautifully lonely lunch hours in the staff room. A solid hour of uninterrupted reading time is pretty unheard of for me right now so the chance to do it three days in a row was a tremendous luxury. Like Christmas all over again in fact. It came at just the right time and stopped me giving up on Katherine just as I was feeling at my most fed up and demoralised about my failure to make progress. Hurray for Christmas miracles.

Katherine is a bit of a departure from my usual reading material. I enjoy historical fiction but usually avoid romance and I had a vague idea that this was a sort of epic love story complete with fair maidens, chivalry and jousting. I quickly realised that I wasn’t quite right about that (although there is jousting, be warned). Even if Katherine didn’t appear at number 95 on the BBC’s Big Read I might have been keen to read it anyway since it features a bevy of my favourite Plantagenets and the Plantagenets are always, always interesting, mainly because of all the (figurative) backstabbing and (literal) murdering they did during their four centuries in charge. The subject of this novel is Katherine Swynford, the daughter of a poor knight who, at the age of fifteen, joined the royal court of Edward III. The novel takes you from Katherine’s childish infatuation with the King’s son John of Gaunt through to their torrid love affair and the decades she spent as his not-very-secret mistress. Katherine wasn’t to know, of course, that in spite of quite publicly being branded a harlot by her contemporaries, she and John would eventually establish a bloodline that can be traced right down through the centuries to the modern royals.

I love the depth of the detail in this novel; that, and the fact that Seton grants the same attention to the minor things – the real names of Katherine’s attendants for example, or the history of Sir Hugh Swynford’s Lincolnshire estates – as she does to the pivotal moments in the romance. It’s like there’s nothing so insignificant that she doesn’t think it worth writing down. I know some people really hate all that useless detail in a novel because it slows down the narrative but, for me at least, it makes the historical setting really believable and kind of immersive.  Each time you close the book it’s a supreme effort to re-acclimatise to the real world, you almost have to shake the fourteenth century out of your brain and force yourself to remember where you are. I quite like it, but I’m weird like that. It helps, of course, that the Plantagenets are such good story fodder. Seton handles them well so that there’s just the right amount of domestic and political treachery for it to be entertaining without becoming completely absurd.

I wasn’t massively in love with some of the characterisation and at times I have to say that I found Katherine utterly, utterly exasperating. After spending much of the book demurely complying with the Duke’s every whim it made quite a nice change when she occasionally stopped all that half-hearted moral wrangling and made a decision for herself for once, even if it did jeopardise her own happiness. You wonder whether the Duke would have loved her quite so much if she hadn’t been so content to sit around in a castle for years, quietly hoping for the occasional visit, bearing bonny children and mysteriously never losing her looks or figure. I know that this sort of forced inactivity was a reality for a lot of medieval women but still, I needed something more here to make me really warm to Katherine or to root for her love affair. Reading it at a distance of sixty years it comes across as a little dated and even very slightly cheesy.

Immediately after finishing Katherine I began Vile Bodies and loved it from the start. I’m about half way through now and having a rollicking fun time; isn’t it funny how you can switch so easily from one response to another?

Top Ten Tuesday: Historical Fiction

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is to do with historical settings so I thought I’d look at some of my favourite works of historical fiction.

I like historical fiction but I’m quite picky so I don’t read as much as I’d like.  I don’t like books that have horrifically tragic storylines, women bursting out of bodices or swirly, romantic writing on the front cover.  I do like fiction presented in an accessible but reasonably accurate way, based on at least some evidence, and with a believable and well researched historic setting. See? I’m a difficult girl to please.

Having said all that, these rules aren’t hard and fast and there are several books that I like because they’re not what I would normally want to read:

1, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I guess this is best described as a sort of saga set around the construction of a fictional cathedral in 12th century Wiltshire. That makes it sound rubbish. It’s actually brilliant. Ignore me.

2, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. An obvious exception to my usual rejection of any book I might find upsetting. There aren’t many books that punch you in the stomach quite like this one.

3, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m often a bit wary of fiction based on the lives of real historical figures so this was a revelation. I love the way that Hilary Mantel takes a much-despised man and makes him weirdly compelling. 

4, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. There are no bad books or films set in revolutionary France, that’s my motto.

5, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Based on the true story of Grace Marks, a Toronto servant accused of murdering her employer in 1843… This description is much more exciting than my pitiful attempt above. I need to reread this as I think I’ve forgotten a lot of it.

6, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This has a believable historical setting and magic. Seriously, what could be better? It feels like Dickens.

7, Dissolution by CJ Sansom. If there’s a fictional murder in a monastery then I will absolutely 100% want to read about it. This probably isn’t one of the best (I like The Name of the Rose and the Cadfael books more) but it’s gripping and definitely one of the most readable.

8, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. It’s quite nice to read a bit about the man behind Sherlock Holmes for a change. This is a fictionalised account of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the real case of an innocent man accused in a racist conspiracy.

9, The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier. This isn’t really my sort of thing usually (see comment re bursting out of bodices above) but I got completely swept off my feet by this book. I read the entire thing in one afternoon.

10, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Is this a lazy/obvious choice? I know everyone (myself included) is sick of me going on about it all the time but it really is an (almost) perfect historical novel.

Next week’s TTT is Valentines themed so Lord knows what I’m going to do about that. Best get my thinking cap on….