My first blog post is finally here! (After I proudly announced on Twitter that I would upload it THREE months ago… whoops.)
Seeing as we’ve recently waved goodbye to 2017 I thought I’d start things off with reviews of two books I most enjoyed reading last year. Considering the first half of my 2017 was spent reading texts on the curriculum of my final year university course, I still managed to get a fair bit of ‘leisurely reading’ done afterwards.
I adore books that surprise me and the following two did just that. There’s another book I would have loved to add to this post but I haven’t actually finished it yet, and I might just do a separate post on it because there will be quite a lot to say… But anyway, let’s get on. Without further ado…
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
(London: The Serpent’s Tail, 2017)
Synopsis from the blurb:
London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned to roam the marshes.
Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…
(Disclaimer: Yes, I know this book was published in 2016, but I only stumbled across it this year and I know people are still loving it so it deserves its place in my 2017 list!)
Even though this book was literally everywhere I looked by springtime this year, I was initially dubious about buying it and held off for a few months. I think the beautiful cover actually made me think that it would be more style than substance, a typical historical fiction attempting more than its author was capable of… Of course, I was completely wrong. Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2016 wouldn’t be like that. I judged a book by its cover again. Don’t do it, people.
The blurb states that this novel is ‘a celebration of love in all its incarnations’ and I was honestly astounded at how many representations of different kinds of love exist in every single character. William and Cora’s friendship is one of the most beautifully complex I think I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Their love is founded on their ability to intellectually stimulate one another despite their wild differences of opinion. Perry’s writing style is sophisticated and persuasive, aiding belief in such an innovative relationship between two characters who couldn’t be more contrasting. What I found most unique and endearing about the vicar and the widow is that they seem to find comfort rather than distress in their physical separation. When Cora says to William ”I like you better on paper” (181) she does not mean it in the way that the more modern expression would suggest. Cora and William write to one another frequently when apart, and it seems that on paper they can express more clarity of mind and better connect to one another, which I think is such a stunning homage to the power of the written word by Perry.
The serpent of the novel’s title, which was inspired by a 1669 pamphlet Perry came across, (click here to read more), is the undercurrent of every conflict the novel explores, from science to faith, to rumour to myth. Real or not, (no spoilers here), the idea of the serpent acts as a sort of malevolent force exerting its power over every inhabitant of Aldwinter, creating a frenzied unease which is most marvellously epitomised about halfway through the novel in a chapter involving a classroom full of hysterical schoolgirls. Within one short section Perry manages to encapsulate such a stunning, unnerving moment of mental instability. Seeping through every page of The Essex Serpent is Perry’s masterful utilisation of the Gothic style, and I couldn’t help noticing that Perry confronts the gruesome and strange with similar unashamed authorial voice to the great Hilary Mantel. The big ‘reveal’ of The Essex Serpent causes characters to confront a disturbing yet in some ways revelational reality.
You don’t have to like history to thoroughly enjoy this novel because Perry’s winning focal point is the complex hearts of her characters, and if you don’t love William and Cora’s love by the time you’ve finished reading, you need to start again. I can’t wait to read what comes next from Sarah Perry, but for now, I’m off to buy her debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood.
Into the Water – Paula Hawkins
(London: Doubleday, 2017)
Synopsis from the blurb:
In the last days before her death, Nel Abbott called her sister.
Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.
Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.
But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.
And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool…
I finally got round to reading the famous The Girl on the Train in August. In true cliché fashion, I read it on the train to visit my friend. Annoyingly, I finished it at her house, (we did socialise, honest!) and so before I returned home I ran to the station’s W. H. Smith and saw Paula Hawkins’ new novel on the shelves, blue and hardback… and expensive. But, after looking at the mass of monotonous celebrity autobiographies and seeing that my train was due to leave in five minutes, I bought Into the Water. I’m glad I trusted my impulses because that was money well spent!
Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water is structured, (in its four parts), in chapters by different characters. However this time there are considerably more perspectives to familiarise ourselves with – fourteen to be precise, including short historical accounts from other women who have encountered death the same way as Nel – by drowning in a natural pool in Hawkins’ fictional town of Beckford. Having so many characters to keep track of was confusing initially. I did have to keep flicking back to previous chapters to discern whether or not the character in the current section had been mentioned beforehand. Nevertheless, I think writers who make readers work for their fiction should be greatly admired because the results are always rewarding, and often novels like this warrant another read, (which surely is a writer’s dream?!)
Although Hawkins’ characters seem dispersed at the beginning, the uncovering of private relationships intrinsically link them to others, which enforces the underlying sense that ‘everyone knows everyone’ within Beckford’s community. Every character has a relevant part to play in heightening the scale of suspicion regarding Nel’s apparent suicide. Hawkins is able to utilise more layers of truth, misjudgment and lies here than she could in her previous novel. The complexity of the plot showcases Hawkins’ flair for using multiple narrative voices. The portrayal of Lena, Nel’s teenage daughter, is particularly poignant due to the raw anger and confusion she exudes throughout the investigation into her mother’s death. Hawkins’ explorations of childhood and adolescent trauma are essential to Into the Water‘s success.
The supernatural connotations that Beckford’s ‘Drowning Pool’ inspires are what sets this novel apart from typical crime dramas. When she is alive, Nel is obsessed with history of women submerging themselves in the pool and never returning for air. She can’t believe that her favourite place has been the location of such dark events. The untold motives of the women who died there drive her to seek answers from her research. She begins writing about the Drowning Pool, the incomplete prologue of which Hawkins includes near the beginning of Into the Water. Nel also converses with Nickie, whom most people in Beckford choose to ignore due to her self-proclaimed ability to interact with the dead. This, along with Nel’s discovery of the ‘swimming of witches‘ (38) that once took place at the Drowning Pool, creates the sense of something unearthly pulling Nel too dangerously close to the secrets of the unfortunate women’s deaths. The short chapters of accounts from the women Nel researches therefore act as powerful catalysts for developing intrigue, allowing Hawkins’ readers a limited yet exclusive insight into the disturbing female struggles that lead these women, including Nel herself, to this place of finality, but not necessarily of rest.
Some of the women left something of themselves in the water, some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters. (38)
If you loved The Girl on the Train or not, invest some effort in Into the Water and enjoy trying to untangle the mysteries in between the weeds of its murky depths…
Thanks for taking the time to read my first post, congratulations if you made it to the end! I’ll try to make my future reviews more compact.
Please leave me a comment if you’ve read either of these books or if my reviews have maybe encouraged you to pick a copy up for yourself. See you in the next post!