There’s something so irresistible about a story where old people behave badly. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had the right to say exactly what we feel without worrying about future consequences. “The Woman Next Door” focuses on two elderly neighbours Hortensia and Marion who live in a small upscale community in South Africa. Both are professionally successful independent women, but they don’t get along at all and don’t feel the need to pretend to get on. This leads to a lot of amusing confrontations and bitchy banter, especially at the neighbourhood meetings which are more glorified social occasions than gatherings to talk business. However, both these women are experiencing severe personal problems whose difficulties are amplified by their advanced age. On top of this claims are being made upon the land around them as compensation for the slaves of past generations who inhabited this area. They grudgingly become more reliant upon each other to navigate these difficulties, but that doesn’t mean either of them are willing to burry the hatchet.

Omotoso has a skilful way of describing the mindset of elderly life showing how it is not simply a time of accumulated regret but also a time where certain desires still burn just a brightly. Loss is something that both of the women have to deal with perpetually: “time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” Hortensia and Marion are very proud individuals. Their sense of dignity is lost when they are increasingly unable to take care of themselves because of physical or financial problems. To deal with this they have to improvise, strike bargains with each other and strategically manipulate those around them. All the while they churn over memories of their development and the choices they made in their lives which are recounted in passages throughout the novel. 

I also really liked what a unique view of human relationships this novel gives. It lays out how (despite appearances) people can be quite selfish and superficial. Omotoso describes this quite well when recounting Marion’s feelings for some other neighbours called the Van Struikers: “Because she didn’t like them, Marion had made them her friends, attending all their soirees, noticed that behind the money their marriage was a sham and took comfort in this.” It’s cruelly honest how people can quite often take pleasure in the suffering of others not only to bolster their own egos but because it pulls the curtain back on the facades some people put up. This also plays out in how Marion deals with her long-serving housekeeper. In one scene it’s described how she discovers the housekeeper has been buying a better quality toilet paper than Marion herself buys. So she feels the need to buy better toilet paper for herself henceforth. This is not only a fine example of how someone can be ridiculously petty, but also the way in which Marion asserts her superiority as a member of the white upper class.

An interview with author Yewande Omotoso.

A continuous bone of contention between Hortensia and Marion is their racial difference. As a black woman of Caribbean descent who was raised in England and lived for some time in Nigeria, Hortensia is especially attuned to the hypocritical attitudes of certain white people that proclaim they aren’t racist, but their actions say something very different. Marion’s skewed sense of equality is inherited from her previous generation’s prejudices. It’s described how for Marion “there was no one to ask about what was real history and what was not. Her parents weren’t in the business of telling these two kinds of histories apart; they weren’t in the history business at all.” She didn’t have access to a rounded view of the past with its multiplicity of view points. So when she’s suddenly confronted with the truth of what actually took place on the land they inhabit she’s jolted into certain horrifying realizations.

This is a really enjoyable novel which balances a story about two warring neighbours with darker subjects of betrayal, complicated forms of racism and the perilous position of elderly people who have no support network. It’s unfortunate that not all the plot points (such as the petitions for land claims and the story of an illegitimate child) aren’t developed quite as fully as they could have been because the narrative is so weighted down by flashbacks to the women’s life stories. As interesting as these back stories are they pull the reader out of the drama happening in the present. It’s also a shame that we’re not given more about how these professionally successful women achieved the unusual status that they did. And no matter how much Omotoso tries to steer the story away from being a "two bitter old neighbours who are really frenemies" tale it seemed to be just that in the end. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing and interesting novel featuring characters we seldom get to read about.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I always feel nervous when I hear that a great novel is being made into a film. It’s a risky business as I don’t want the pleasure of the reading experience soured if the movie is unfaithful to the characters and ideas of the book. However, some of my favourite novels such as Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” and Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man” have artfully been made into very fine films. When I was invited to a preview screening of an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” I was intrigued because I only vaguely remembered this book. I read it back in 2011 when it won the Booker Prize. However, the details of the story were sketchy in my mind – especially because it’s such a short novel. So I reread it last weekend and was newly astounded by the power of this book. It says so much about the way we perceive personal and social history, how the past can take an idealized form from endlessly retold anecdotes and how fallible identity can feel when lost details of the past re-emerge. I found it especially interesting going back to this novel after having read Barnes’ most recent novel “The Noise of Time” which looks at the question of history and free will under social pressures from a different angle.

The novel is broken up into two sections that are told from the perspective of Tony Webster. He recalls his teenage school days, an early relationship with an enigmatic young woman named Veronica and a friendship with earnest fellow student Adrian. His memories surrounding them are safely encased in a subjective understanding of the past. The first section of the book self consciously questions the meaning of history and how we perceive it by recounting debates that happened in his classroom. Adrian poses the theory that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” This significant statement is repeated in the novel and plays out in the plot. Leaping forward in time, the novel’s second section shows Tony in his advanced middle age feeling secure in who he is and what happened in the past. But that’s all undone by his creeping uncertainty about his recollections and a missing document that was bequest to him. Suddenly his sense of self is crumbling amidst his attempts to reconnect with Veronica and desperately scrambling to understand the truth about the past.

Having just read the book, I felt wary about going to see this adaptation for two reasons. Firstly, it’s risky seeing a film straight after having read the book as it might feel dull seeing the same story played out on screen that you just experienced on paper. Secondly, because this novel is written from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, I couldn’t see how hazily remembered events could be shown in visual flashbacks without presenting them as what actually happened. Luckily, my worries proved to be totally unfounded because not only does the film of this novel faithfully interpret the story and overarching ideas of the book, but it made me think about the novel in a fascinating new way.

All the characters in Barnes’ novel feel slightly indistinct because you’re so embedded in Tony’s thought process. However, seeing these characters on-screen I could actually see how the actors added depth and complexity with subtle gestures and expressions. For instance, the character of Sarah (Veronica’s mother) played by Emily Mortimer comes across as much more energetic and flirtatious. Whereas Charlotte Rampling (who plays the elder version of Veronica) can switch her expression from steely to sinisterly amused with a slight twitch of her mouth. Similarly, seeing the elder version of the character of Tony performed by Jim Broadbent the viewer understands how prickly and unlikeable he appears. In the book, Tony came across to me as a slightly charming and benign presence. This is in sharp contrast to the younger version of Tony who is wonderfully played by Billy Howle who shows the character at a stage in his life when he was still a vulnerable and bolshy youth. Of course, these performances are giving an interpretation of the characters, but it made me think about the story and ideas of the book in an entirely different light.

The elder version of Tony recalls his past throughout various points in the movie and this elder version of himself gradually starts to actually enter this history. At other times actions are mirrored by the younger and older version of the character. This is done in a subtle way which adds emotional depth to Tony’s desperation to understand what actually happened and the pain of his nostalgia. Tony’s subjectivity is still reflected in the film because certain events play out in an ambiguous way. He’s never entirely sure the meaning of what some people said to him or the motives of their actions. This felt very true to life for me in the way that we endlessly mull over certain events of our life considering what happened from different angles until the facts themselves seem indistinct. It’s really moving in the film how Jim Broadbent shows Tony’s journey from a position of self-satisfied certainty and emotional-standoffishness to someone who is more sensitive to the ambiguities of his own past. The only element of the film which I didn’t feel worked as well was the slightly sentimental tone that the movie takes towards the end – something which felt crammed in to give a heart warming feel.

Overall, the filmmakers made a lot of clever choices and most text-to-film changes improved how the story worked visually. Also, there's a wonderful scene that takes place in Foyles on Charing Cross Road - always a treat for book lovers to see! After the screening I met with a group of book bloggers and writers to discuss how the film worked as a book adaptation. It was a really lively and interesting conversation as everyone was really engaged and excited by how well the book worked as a film. I was particularly struck by how the writer Isabel Costello mentioned how differently the novel affected her reading it a second time later in life. “The Sense of an Ending” is one of those novels which can be revisited continuously as it will take on a different resonance with accumulated experience. I think the same will be true for watching and re-watching this adaptation. It feels so rare that seeing the film of a great novel can actually enhance the reading experience, but the new movie of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ accomplishes this beautifully and made me eager to read this profound book again.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There’s certainly been a lot of book prize news recently, but The Green Carnation Prize which celebrates books by LGBT authors is an extremely special one! I was honoured to be a judge the last time it was awarded where we selected Marlon James’ epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” among an extraordinarily good longlist.

The new longlist for books published in 2016 has just been announced and for me it hits the perfect balance between excellent books I’ve read, books I’ve been meaning to read and a couple surprises of books I know very little about. It’s wonderful to see Will Eaves’ incredibly distinctive memoir in fragments recognized alongside David France’s comprehensive and personal account of individuals involved in fighting the AIDS crisis. Kirsty Logan’s stories are so beautifully inventive as is Kei Miller’s richly immersive novel about a community in the outskirts of a Jamaican city. I’m especially pleased to see one of my favourite modern poets John McCullough on the list. And, even though I read Garth Greenwell’s book back in 2015, I still often think about this moving novel which gives such a radical new perspective on desire.

It’ll be exciting to follow the shortlist which will be announced on April 28th and the winner which will be announced on May 22nd. Click on the titles below to read my thoughts about some of the books I’ve already read and reviewed.
What books on the list are you most interested in reading?

London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy
The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves
How to Survive a Plague by David France
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Spacecraft by John McCullough
Augustown by Kei Miller
Where The Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd
Our Young Man by Edmund White

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It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as conflicted about a novel as I am about “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill. This is a book which arrestingly portrays the brutal abuse of women and orphans with the fantastical touch of a fairy tale. It creatively shows how children’s imaginations can colour their world as a defence against the horrors of their reality. The narrative is strewn with fascinating concepts and imagery that made me frequently pause to think about their meaning. Yet, as compelling as I found the writing in this book I felt at times deeply uncomfortable with the way issues such as physical/sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse sat within the humorous/whimsical style of the novel. I have no doubt the author takes these issues very seriously and I could feel behind the magical flair a lot of anger for the injustice experienced by vulnerable children, women and the poor. However, I continuously questioned throughout my reading whether this is the most appropriate way to portray traumatic experiences. I think the point was to raise questions and it certainly did that for me. At its heart, this novel is as deeply provocative and unsettling as the highly intelligent fiction of Angela Carter.

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” begins in the early 1900s with the unfortunate stories of two young mothers whose boy and girl wind up in a Montreal orphanage. The majority of the book follows the development of these children Rose and Joseph (who everyone calls Pierrot). Although boys and girls in the orphanage are kept separate by the strict nuns who oversee them, Rose and Pierrot develop a deep bond and form a curious kind of double-act with acrobatics, dancing and improvised piano playing. The jealousy of a manipulative third party creates a split between the pair and they are finally physically separated when Pierrot is adopted by an encouraging elderly wealthy man and Rose is employed as an indulgent governess to the children of a notorious gangster leader. Their stories spiral into bizarre and surprising adventures that take them through the Great Depression, but are always tinged with the sorrow of their lost burgeoning romance.

It’s so intriguing how O’Neill writes about the experience of childhood. It’s particularly striking how she describes the way adolescents develop their use of language and claim it as their own. She observes how “Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love.” The way in which the children use words with each other redefines that language as something empowering rather than something used as a weapon to diminish them. They also possess the innate powers of creativity, talent and imagination to build themselves out of the desultory circumstances they were born into.

Throughout Rose’s upbringing she imagines a large bear who dances with her. This image is just as innocently charming as it is alarming suggesting that danger continuously orbits around the girl. This is reinforced by the statement that “A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.” Just as girls are in danger of being violated, the author also shows the way a young boy’s developing body is vulnerable to the predatory control and manipulation of those who are older and in a position of power. The author shows how a boy’s early experiences of sexual abuse continue to affect him throughout his life leading to difficulties with intimacy and drug abuse. I was particularly struck by how she describes his continuous craving for drugs even after he sobers up like a taxidermist’s reanimated wolf corpse which stalks him. It’s no wonder that Rose surmises at one point that “Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy.” Interestingly, Eimear McBride also considers the long-lasting trauma after a young man’s sexual abuse in an entirely different style within her novel “The Lesser Bohemians” (which is also longlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize).

Along with the stories of Rose and Pierrot's eccentric behaviour, there are scenes where flowers complain to one another and a timid rat expresses his nervousness about moving to the big city. By invoking fantasy, O’Neill appears to be be saying that a childish sense of wonder and ambiguity are essential elements in maintaining a morally just world. People who dominate and attempt to control others believe they are justified in doing so because they are fixed in their own certain reality. She writes: “Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is completely insane. They are bad with a conviction that they are good. It is that idea that is the impetus behind evil.” Even though Rose and Pierrot experience the most brutally harsh realities of life, they retain their faith in the power of a youthful creativity which gradually morphs as they grow into sophisticated artistic expressions in music and performance.

Something I have difficulty with in novels that describe ambitious forms of artistic expression are overzealous reactions to those performances. That’s something which happens frequently in this novel which includes children’s acrobatics, avant-garde performances by clowns, an eccentric clown and dance revue and an intricately composed song. They all enthral anyone who experiences them. Although large crowds can certainly be enraptured by great art, it becomes slightly irksome reading about the success rate for every kind of performance in this novel which elicits over-enthused reactions. This doesn't take into account the grounding factors of artistic failure and the general indifference of the general public - which is sadly more often the result of creative endeavours.

Rose is such a compellingly forthright character. She explores what intrigues her, exudes a large amount of charm and shows an intellectual savviness. Not only does she fearless do what's necessary to survive enormous difficulties but maintains her principles at the same time. Then there is a prostitute who is (appropriately) named Poppy who is a habitual drug user and continuously takes the wrap for other prostitutes. She exhibits a masochism where “She wanted the ugly rage and depravity that came with love.” O’Neill writes in a really fascinating way about women's relationships with their bodies, sex and rivalry with other women.

I have a feeling I'm going to be puzzling over this novel for a lot longer. I felt delighted by how bizarre it was at points, but also unsettled by how casually it could draw in very dark themes. It certainly goes to show me that I shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. Since I hadn't read this author before or anything about this novel when I'd previously seen “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” I thought by the name and the cover that it'd be a frivolously sentimental novel, but it has a lot of deep twisted depths to it. The Baileys Women's Prize longlist invariably introduces me to a book I wouldn't have read otherwise, but gives me a lot to think about. I'll be particularly interested to hear what other people who have read this novel think.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Although I loved this novel, I retrospectively had some really strong feelings about the way the publisher presented and promoted it. You can watch my video discussing this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asWSOLCWKII

Many book award lists have been announced recently, but one I’m particularly excited about is The British Book Awards or Nibbies. I was kindly asked to be one of the judges in the Fiction category and it’s a cracking list. I’ve reviewed most of these books and you can read my thoughts about them by clicking on the title links below or watch my handy video giving short summaries of the prize and each novel listed. It’s going to be very interesting meeting with the judges soon to choose a winner as the novels are a diverse group of contenders. It’s also worth noting there are many more interesting nominations on the Bookseller's British Book Awards site in other book categories as well as in publishing categories from literary agents to booksellers to libraries. I’m particularly excited by the Debut Fiction category as I’ve extremely enjoyed three books on that list: The Girls by Emma Cline, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. Winners will be chosen in each book category and then on May 8th, the night of the awards ceremony, an overall winner will be crowned. I’d really like your opinions so if you’ve read some of these books who do you think should win?

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Muse by Jessie Burton
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Cartes Postales From Greece by Victoria Hislop
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

A novel about a reclusive ex-film star may sound like it will focus on sensational glamour rather than an emotionally-effective story, but “This Must Be the Place” is engrossing and extremely moving. Maggie O'Farrell creates a woman named Claudette who walks away from her famous director husband and a successful acting career to live in the remotest possible Ireland retreat and weaves her tale into the stories of many other fascinating characters. Most notably it charts her relationship with Daniel who deals with the complicated family he had with his first wife, an unresolved secret from his past and a growing substance abuse problem. Each chapter focuses on a specific character related to this couple. It leapfrogs back and forth through time to form impressions of their dramatic and tumultuous lives. The cumulative effect of this very readable novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the way chance and coincidence influence the most important decisions of our lives.

 

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

O'Farrell has a fascinating way of mapping out the lives of her characters in this novel. Each chapter is sub-headed by a name, year and location so you know with certainty where you are, but only through the course of the narrative do you understand why this point matters so much. The focus varies from stories about Daniel’s son Niall’s painful struggles with a severe eczema condition at a special dermatological clinic to Claudette’s sister-in-law Maeve’s journey to China to adopt a daughter. Through these fascinating individual stories we gain impressions of what’s happening in Daniel and Claudette’s lives as well. My only quibble is I wish the author had included a section on Daniel’s first wife rather than so many peripheral characters towards the end. It felt like she was the only major character that remained sketchily drawn where the others were fully rounded. Multiple sections are told from Daniel’s point of view as he seems to have the most trouble finding where he really belongs. However, the only section which focuses on Claudette’s perspective is narrated in the second person so, although we’re entirely with her, we remain outside her consciousness. This distancing effect from her character is mirrored in another section where we’re given photographs of vital objects from her film career that are being auctioned, but which cleverly tell the story of her relationship with the cerebral Scandinavian film director Timou.

I think people who enjoy Anne Tyler’s books would also really appreciate this novel. O'Farrell has a similar way of realistically portraying the quirks, humour and heartache of family life. She also touches upon the complex way we come to define ourselves through the perspectives of others. In particular, she beautifully describes the way those who love us see us in an idealistic light which in turn reinforces our own self confidence: “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” The story meaningfully shows how complex relationships can be and that we’ll inevitably follow lots of indirect paths in life, but how powerfully changed we are when honest connections are made. “This Must Be the Place” is a skilfully written novel with a lot of heart.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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What an immensely pleasurable joy it is reading “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry! I’ve been eagerly anticipating this novel since it was first published last year. I heard such high praise from friends and reviewers I trust and it was Waterstone’s book of the year. I’m greatly relieved that it lives up to the hype. This richly detailed Victorian-set novel with gothic inflections and distinctly vibrant characters gives the feeling of a modern-day book by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. Set over a year it follows the widow Cora Seaborne’s excursion to the rural Essex village of Aldwinter which buffets the edge of the gloomy Blackwater marshes. Cora has amateur archaeological inclinations and becomes excited by the secrets this location might hold after rumours and paranoia spread among the inhabitants that a prehistoric beast roams the waters. Strange sightings are reported, bodies are found, children turn hysterical and people go missing. It’s full of suspense as the mystery gradually unfolds, but also skilfully presents competing ideologies of science vs religion and reason vs faith through the actions and sensibilities of the characters. More importantly it shows how these perspectives aren’t necessarily dogmatic and that “far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which it would be possible to prove or disprove.” This is a novel which delivers highly on adventure and romance to form an intelligent, moving story.

Cora experiences a sense of independence and freedom now that she’s released from her marriage. She no longer makes much effort with her appearance and can pursue what solely interests her. In particular, she feels liberated from gender constrictions stating “The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore.” This allows her to express her intelligence and also begin to understand what she desires for the first time (rather than always projecting what her late husband desired.) She’s accompanied by her longtime companion Martha, an ardent socialist who harbours a secret attraction to Cora. At Aldwinter Cora is introduced to the local reverend William Ransome and his luminous wife Stella. The burgeoning romantic relationship that develops between Cora and William is especially interesting because it’s based primarily on their different ideas and competing perspectives as well as physical attraction. Perry is especially good at portraying the complexity of relationships where the boundaries of gender and friendship are blurred.

Although the novel is framed around the notorious gigantic serpent which may or may not be terrorizing the villagers, it’s more about what reality people choose to believe. Some ascribe to values based around superstition, others live by principles from religious texts and others aspire to forge a new understanding of the world based upon scientific findings. What Perry does so magnificently is imbue how the characters perceive their environment based on these perspectives of the world. To Martha who is cognizant of social and economic imbalances “It seemed… that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.” But wealthy George Spencer who dabbles in the medical field expresses that “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” While Cora, with her faith in archaeological discovery, feels that “all the earth was a graveyard with gods and monsters under their feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life.” These views of the world around them overlap and form a complex picture of not only the changing landscape, but the evolution of the people and wildlife that inhabited it.

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Alongside the compelling story and complex characters, the novel is especially enjoyable for the deeply emotive language Perry uses in her descriptions. At some times she expresses a Virginia Woolf-like sensibility where a room literally comes alive when the characters enter it: “Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the polished wood of the table, and Stella’s forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.” The descriptions show a playful use of language and convey a very definite sense of mood. I don’t think I’ve read about such a powerfully expressive sense of atmosphere since Andrew Michael Hurley’s eerie and suspenseful “The Loney”. It’s also impressive how this keen sense of detail brings to life the natural environment of Essex which is a county that is somewhat forgotten or maligned these days.

It would be easy to write a lot about many of the other fascinating characters that populate this novel. It feels like Cora’s son Francis may have some form of autism as he has a regimentally ordered mind and emotionally detached personality. Cora’s friend Luke Garrett is a surgeon who pioneers controversial new practices. The ginger-haired girl Naomi Banks possesses unruly powers and passions. Stella and William’s precocious daughter Joanna understands how exerting authority with confidence can get people to follow you. Their lives intersect in fascinatingly dramatic ways, but I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid giving the plot away. Suffice it to say, the fact that they are so memorable is a testament to how distinctly original Perry makes her characters. Many surprises and delights are to be found in this book. “The Essex Serpent” is as intricate and beautiful as its cover.

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