Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. A new writer can produce their fiction without the weight of expectation, but once a first novel comes out there is a demand for a follow up which trips up many of the most talented writers. So it’s really great to see that the Royal Society of Literature dedicates a prize exactly to this category of book with The Encore Award. I’m particularly excited by this year’s shortlist as I’ve read all these novels and can highly recommend each of them. I won’t even begin to predict a winner; it’s simply enough to say these are highly accomplished novels that represent a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

I’m particularly pleased to see two novels on the list which specifically include complex and well-rounded transgender characters: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” and “The Lauras”. It’s so rare that this happens in fiction! Also, something I greatly admired about “The North Water” was the way this hyper-masculine environment of a whaling ship includes a sensitively-portrayed gay character. There’s also the challenge to Victorian gender stereotypes in “The Essex Serpent” and a heartbreaking portrayal of a male child’s sexual abuse in “The Lesser Bohemians”. And, it has to be said, “Beast” disarmingly portrays a man so stripped of civilization in his pared down isolated existence he might not even be human anymore. Having also read most of these authors' first novels it's fascinating to see how their writing is evolving. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about these wonderful novels. The winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 is announced April 5th.

Have you read any of them and what novel do you think should win?

The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan
Beast - Paul Kingsnorth
The North Water - Ian McGuire
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Lauras - Sara Taylor

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

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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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
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