Book Review: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Available now in bookshops nationwide.
This book has just been awarded Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards

cv_The_Essex_serpent_bigRelationships, in all its forms, can be fickle things, constantly surprising us in ways that we don’t always want or expect. Such is true in Sarah Perry’s Victorian novel, The Essex Serpent – an exploration of the human mind and self when faced with the complexities of love, society, and belief.

The story centres around Cora Seabourne, a young widow and keen amateur naturalist who decides to travel away from London with her son and female companion. When she learns of the Essex Serpent, a mythical sea creature said to be responsible for a mysterious death in the remote village of Aldwinter, her curiosity piques and she sets off in the hopes of discovering a new species. Meanwhile, the local vicar William Ransome is fighting a losing battle against the rising fears of his parishioners. While he is determined that the rumours are a result of moral panic, the ongoing troubles in the village challenge his views, and an unexpected friendship develops between Cora and Will both rewarding and destructive to those around them.

The glowing reviews and accolades that this book has received attest to the skillfulness of Perry’s atmospheric writing. Every description is exquisitely crafted in a way that allows you to wallow in Essex’s coastal landscape, with scenes of dreamlike renderings presenting nature at its best:

‘On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels. […] On Aldwinter common the oaks shine copper in the sunblast; the hedgerows are scarlet with berries. The swallows have gone, but down on the saltings swans menace dogs and children in the creeks.’

Perry’s characters, while diverse and clever in their own way, are something I’m mixed on. I feel that we have only skimmed the surface of each relationship presented to us, and as a result, the anticipated tension didn’t quite translate through the story or capture my interest. The somewhat modern dialogue and references also left the characters bordering on the unrealistic side, though I appreciate her inclusion of strong, unconventional women with contemporary views.

If you’re looking for a slow gothic read to complement those rainy nights, this is the book for you.

Reviewed by Tracey Wong

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail
ISBN 9781781255445

Book Review: I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

cv_i_love_dickAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

First published in 1997, I Love Dick was a landmark publication in the world of feminist literature, cleverly mixing memoir with fiction to create what the author called “lonely girl phenomenology”, and what the critics call “radical” and “gossipy”. The public loved it and I can totally see why.

The Dick of the title is a man – a sociologist and media theorist who dazzles the author throughout the book, captivating her like a shiny thing catches the eye of a kea. As time passes and she negotiates her way through the art world with her husband by her side, she encounters various movers and shakers some real life figures, some not, some possible “names changed to prevent a law suit”… And always Dick.

There are undoubtedly some disturbing aspects to the book. The idea that a married woman would “crush” on a single man, who seems uninterested to the point of asking her to leave him alone, and convinces her husband to help pen letters to him seems cruel, possibly fantastical. Does she love Dick that much or is it the idea of Dick? Of what he represents?

Sharp eyed and sarcastic, Kraus spares no one, least of all herself, brutally dissecting the feminist movement of the 90s, both within the academic world and the fickle arts scene where individuality is heralded as new and brave, but only if it can be marketed in an acceptably formulaic fashion.

A performance artist on the rise, married to a successful man, her feminist world view takes on a distinctly Dick-shaped lens, one she’s aware of but unsure whether it’s a gift or a handicap in a post-modernist world.

And who is Dick? Is he a real person? And what really happened between the author, her husband and Dick?

Dick’s real identity is now known – but don’t go searching for it until you’ve read this book. Reading it for the first time is something to treasure. The fact it’s not as well-known as non-fiction feminist texts is a shame, a crime! This is a book every independent, intelligent woman (or man who likes them) should read. It’s not fluffy. It’s certainly not a beach read. But it’s witty, satisfying and good for the soul – like a night out where the wine is as good as the conversation and you know your plan to take over the world is solid.

I’ve added I Love Dick this book to my “Annual Read” list. So should you, because I think you’ll love Dick just as much as I do.

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan

I Love Dick
by Chris Kraus
Published by Serpent’s Tail
PB ISBN  9781781256480
HB ISBN 9781781256473