Tag Archives: Serpents Tail

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Shall we talk about love?  I think we should. First, I’ve not shown my blog a lot of love this year and it deserves a bit of attention (don’t we all?!).  Second, I’ve heard enough vitriol, heated words, outright hatred, disproportionate and nasty outrage this year to last me a life time, so, as the year draws to a close I want to reflect on a book I read in August that had a profound affect on me and made me think about the nature of love and friendship on a level I’d not pondered before.  I’ve regularly thought about this book since then; it’s been a perfect foil to all the grimness of 2016.

There are few books capable of initiating spontaneous chest-heave sobbing and huge fat tears from me, but Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent did.  Without warning, it just started, 2/3rds of the way through my first reading. It was five minutes of that really uncontrollable type of crying; when it was over I felt lighter and a huge sense of relief.  The weird thing is, this is not a sad book.  In fact, the opposite.   My reaction was unexpected and has allowed me to cement ideas about things that are important to me.

Told over 12 months, The Essex Serpent is a story set at the very end of the Victorian era. It tells of recently widowed Cora Seaborne, who is seeking change and adventure.  She moves with her son, Francis and companion, Martha, to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter, bordered by the estuary marshes.  Here she meets the Reverand William Ransome, a man desperate to dissuade his parishioners from their superstitions about the local legend of a huge serpent supposed to haunt the local waterways and blamed for disappearances and strange goings on.  The parishioners’ superstitions have been whipped to almost hysterical proportions and Will Ransome is determined to use reason to explain away the sightings of this horrific creature and calm his flock, restore order and peace to this sleepy corner.

The search for the serpent is the frame on which Sarah Perry deftly hangs the rest of the plot in her novel of ideas and deep themes.  The characters go about their eventful year and through their interlocking relationships she introduces and discusses concepts relating to religion and science, politics and society all wrapped in a story delicately balanced on the love and friendships between a beautifully described cast of characters, believable in their actions and motivations because they are not so different from us.  It is not overly sentimental, yet emotionally evocative.

William and Cora are a pair who, on paper, shouldn’t be well suited.  They have a few things in common and there is a lot they differ on.  They debate and argue, they disagree and make up, they sulk and relent, she teases him and he scolds her.  Yet undeniable to them both is the fact that the connection and admiration is instant and heartfelt, intellectual at first and developing into physical attraction.  To Will, this connection is a mystery and he fights it.  He is married to his childhood sweetheart.  He never contemplated he could possibly have room for anyone else in his heart but his Stella.  A lot of thinking and walking brings him to the realisation that he can and he does.  He loves Cora and he bravely, beautifully, lyrically declares it to her because he knows she loves him too.  Honesty is the best option.  As I’m not an award-winning writer, I cannot do justice to the way Perry (who is an award-winning writer) reveals this burgeoning relationship to us.  I make it sound like sentimental mush, it’s not.  It’s exactly as I imagine something like this happening; with a lot of angst, a whole heap of confusion and anxiety.  When Cora runs back to London and avoids Will by not responding to his letters she has these bewildered thoughts:

Will’s letters are prized, read often, unanswered.  How can she respond?  She buys a postcard…and writes I WISH YOU WERE HERE, but what good did it ever do to speak one’s mind?  In his absence – the world grows dull and blunted; there’s no longer anything in it to delight or surprise.  Then she’s struck by her own folly – to feel so dreary because she can’t speak to some Essex parson with whom she has nothing in common! – it’s absurb; her pride revolts against it.  In the end, it comes more or less down to this; she does not write, because she wants to.

As a reader, this behaviour makes no sense – they love each other, why don’t they just sort it out? – because Perry’s version is closer to real life, that’s why…human frailties, vulnerabilities and insecurities stop us from pursuing the very thing we want the most, driving us to upset and offend albeit perhaps not deliberately.  Will is disquieted at Cora’s silence – it confuses him.

Will and Cora’s intellectual and passionate love is not the only form of friendship Perry explores in The Essex Serpent.  We get familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and childhood friendship.  Cora’s friend Luke, a surgeon working at the cutting edge of medicine, is horrified to witness her blossoming friendship with Will.  He takes comfort in his work, but when Cora rejects him and disaster strikes at work, he feels there is nothing left to live for – though there is friendship.  Will’s daughter never forgets her missing friend from school – the elation they feel at finding each other again made me glow inside.  Cora’s companion, Martha, is a striking and astounding character; obsessed with improving housing for the poor, she campaigns like her life depends on it, she befriends a man in need and they agree to live as man and wife but free of the shackles the ceremony bestows.  She is politically aware and has marxist leanings – she is a kick-ass awesome, no-nonsense, emancipated, bright woman who knows her own mind and won’t be dictated to.

This book is about grand ideas and the themes of love and friendship, but it is ultimately a book about acceptance.  Acceptance of reason over superstition, rational thought over doctrine and vice versa, medical intervention over waiting for fate to take its course.  Acceptance of your station in life or not.  Acceptance of change.  Acceptance of intellect over beauty, accepting when your heart overrules your head.

So, why the tears?  Ok, well.  The truth is, Sarah Perry made me think about the sort of friend I am.  I was found to be scoring mostly Cs in the “Are you a good friend?” multiple-choice Graziaesque self-inflicted questionnaire i.e. could do better. For me, showing someone you care about them is more about little things than grand gestures; remembering a conversation from months back and referring to it, messaging them just so they know you are thinking of them, listening when they are being needy without offering advice, being honest when needed and reliable when necessary; I realised, I probably wasn’t doing very well at any of this.  Time to improve.  I’ve got some amazing friends.  As my life gets busier, I have seen less of some people whose company I really enjoy. Some are more dependable than others, some I’ve wondered whether they are truly committed to me as a friend and sometimes it can be easier not to make the effort.  Since that day in August, I’ve made more of an effort to be the friend I want to be.  Then, yesterday, I read a blog post about being positive and a line stood out:

Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.

And having spent months thinking and worrying about what I could possibly write that could describe how I feel about The Essex Serpent, it finally all fell into place.

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Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith

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In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.

 

11 sentences – must try harder!

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

I am lucky to belong to a bookclub made up of bright, intelligent, well-informed friends.  We often have what I think are erudite conversations about the books we read.   We all have our differing opinions and points of view and none of us is shy of saying what we think.  I am grateful after every meeting for learning things about our books that I may never have noticed on my own.  After catching up with each other and talking about holidays, birthdays, children, jobs and generally putting our worlds to right, we recently had the most fabulous discussion about the Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  It’s not surprising really, as it is a remarkable book with a unique subject by a writer showing real promise with her second book.

The tale switches between Paris and Berlin during the early years of World War 2 and Berlin and Poland in 1992.  The story is one of friendship, betrayal, guilt and memory all relating to a group of young jazz musicians coping with the rise of fascism in 1930’s Berlin.  As Hitler’s power took hold, jazz was banned and it invariably moved underground.

“…Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines..”

The story focuses particularly on 3 of the musicians, Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero).  These three are particularly peculiar in late 30’s Berlin, as they are black; Sid and Chip are American, Hiero is German.

“..He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rheinlander.  Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil.  But he German-born, sure.  And if his face wasn’t of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good..”

After a run-in with the authorities, Sid, Hiero and Chip escape to Paris, where, after many weeks of waiting and trying to keep the music alive, the Nazis occupy France and something very dreadful occurs to split the trio.   In 1992, Sid, who is the narrator, tries to make sense of the whole episode and how it has affected his life and those around him.

I’ve really tried hard with the above description not to give away too much of the plot.  It is difficult not to write more, but what would be the point of ruining it for you!

We discussed the plot in detail and were all agreed that it made for interesting reading, certainly providing a different perspective on the war years. We talked about how it wasn’t generally known that black Germans were persecuted, but this wasn’t such a surprise for me.  I started reading the book while in Berlin, and persuaded Mr Fictionhabit to check out some of the landmarks and streets mentioned in the book, luckily all very close to our hotel.  But while we were there we also went to Gedaenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to German Resistance).  This, by the way, is an excellent museum.  Free and with a brilliant English audiotour.  What I found interesting was the extent of German resistance to the Third Reich, but I have to admit my dismay at learning about those sections of society abused by the Nazis but largely forgotten by history.  There were so many persecuted minority groups working against the regime – if they had pooled their resources they may have been able to achieve something.   These groups included, communists, homosexuals, Romany gypsys, Christians, members of the labour movement and youth groups.  There was even a mention for Herr & Frau Hampel who were the inspiration for Alone in Berlin.  Generally speaking, however, the main premise of the book isn’t well known and therefore makes interesting reading.  Edugyan, must have done significant research for this book and it has paid off, as it feels so real.

As you will have noticed from the extracts above, the book is written in Jazz vernacular.  Some of my bookclub friends were a bit worried about this ahead of reading the book, but we all agreed, it wasn’t too difficult to get to grips with.  We also recently read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  While discussing that book we talked about the tempo of the narrative echoing freestyle jazz (yes, really, we did!).  We had a very similar discussion about Half Blood Blues.  The book has periods of high energy and periods of lull and becomes a bit dense where nothing much happens.  One of my very clever bookclub friends pointed out that maybe the vernacular and the changes in tempo were deliberate, to mirror the mood of jazz music, which speeds up, then mellows, builds to a crescendo, lulls, has staccato and fluid moments side by side.  This comment inspired another friend to mention that there were at least 3 heart-breaking moments in the book (honestly, tear-inducing), and the narrative seems to build to these points, mirroring different movements in a piece of music.  Once this was all mentioned, I could see and understand it.  Oh, to be so clever!

We also discussed how unlikable the main character was, how reprehensible and unforgivable some of his behaviour was.  I was one of those who felt very little sympathy with this character during his younger years.  But I was made to re-think when someone pointed out that his behaviour was very characteristic of most young men.  Desperate to find their place in the group, yearning for influence, showing off in front of women and people in powerful positions, not supporting each other for fear of losing face or position in the group, constantly competing against each other and never discussing their hopes and fears.  This revelation went some way to explain the behaviour although not to excuse it.  We were by now completely staggered by Edugyan’s skill at writing so proficiently about male relationships.

Half Blood Blues is by no means a fully polished book.  There are details which we were all dissatisfied with, these included issues of historical and geographical accuracy and a weaker ending than we’d anticipated. We were however all impressed and agreed that Edugyan shows real promise as a writer.

One of our members rebelled against Half Blood Blues and instead read the Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  She spoke about it with such affection and admiration that a few of us have been persuaded to give it a go over the summer.  It is possible that we may soon lose this member of our bookgroup as she makes a life changing move to the Isle of Skye (although bookclub by Skype has been talked of!) and it will be sad to see her go.  I console myself with the knowledge that I bonded with her and my other bookclubbers initially over books but over the 8 years we have been meeting to discuss books, we have become more than just bookclub buddies.  I am proud to call these astute, knowledgeable and articulate women, my friends.