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: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins

Max Gate will be available in bookstores from 12 September.

I can’t think of a single author writing today who could garner the intense media cv_max_gatespeculation surrounding their imminent demise that Thomas Hardy attracted in January 1928. So famous and popular and revered was this man that there was a very bitter dispute between the locals and the literati over where he should be buried – at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey or beside his first wife in parish of Stinsford where he was born in his beloved Dorchester.

The death of Thomas Hardy and the furore surrounding it are the subjects of this latest novel by highly regarded, award winning New Zealand writer Damien Wilkins. Thomas Hardy, who died at the very grand age of 88, was probably England’s greatest living author at that time. Author of such classics as Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, he had in the previous twenty years or so returned to writing poetry. Much of his poetry deals with his first wife Emma, who he seemed to have a tortured love-hate relationship with, as well his love of nature, his preoccupation with man’s suffering and life’s disappointments. And these are the major themes that permeate through this carefully crafted and beautifully written novel.

The story is not so much about Thomas Hardy himself, who is lying in his bed, death imminent, but more about the people directly affected by his passing – those living at Max Gate, his much loved house that he designed and lived in for over 40 years.  And let us not forget Wessex, Hardy’s devoted terrier.  The story is narrated primarily by a maid of the house, Nellie Titterington, but also moves gracefully to and fro between her, second wife Florence Hardy, his executor Mr Cockerell, his elderly brother and sister, the author James Barrie and several other characters who may or may not have been real people.

So what does one do when waiting for a loved one to die? One reflects on life with the loved one, and this is what the main characters do. Particularly Florence, who was initially a secretary to Mr Hardy, and then married him on the death of his first wife, Emma. Florence, considerably younger than Thomas, is a fairly tortured soul. Never feeling fully accepted as Thomas’ wife due to her youth and what would appear to be Thomas’ shortcomings in the sensitive husband department, she is doing her best to walk the fine line between keeping her husband’s final wishes – burial locally, and keeping the public happy – privacy vs celebrity. Nellie is her maid, and so is privy to Florence’s emotion and distress. She, in turn, has to maintain the fine line between maid and confidante, in view of the uncertainty of her own fate once Mr Hardy dies.

There are a number of other ‘fine line’ relationships and situations in this novel – Nellie’s relationship with a young reporter Alex Peters; Alex himself desperate to be the one to have the first scoop on Hardy’s death and yet, as a local, wanting to protect him from the likes of Cockerell and Barrie; Florence’s own relationship with Barrie; a conversation between Barrie and the doctor over what is more important, the brain or the heart; being a celebrity versus the need for privacy. Interspersed through the novel are many of Hardy’s own writings, in particular his poetry, which Wilkins has referred to in his note at the end of the book.

I don’t really know anything at all about Thomas Hardy or his writings, and have only seen a 2008 BBC TV adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which was about as gloomy and awful and sad as you can get. It doesn’t compel me to read any of his novels, but his life was certainly interesting and one of deep introspection. There is some very beautiful writing in this book, and I certainly think his poetry is worth a look. There is a lot going on in this novel of just over 200 pages, and really, I have barely scratched the surface. Much like Thomas Hardy really – full of hidden depths.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Max Gate
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738998