Gerald Durrell – My Family and Other Animals

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Gerald Durrell’s Corfu childhood Ark, with far more than two by two

I first read this, Volume 1 of Durrell’s Corfu Childhood books, when I was probably around the same age as the period of his life he is describing. The book absolutely resonated with me, with its love of landscape. Durrell rather ascribes almost a sentience, not only towards the ‘other animals’ which this book is largely about, but to the very mountains, vegetation, winds, waves, sunlight and rain. This was very much my own view of the natural world, so reading Durrell, as a child, was a kind of coming home to how I felt about ‘nature’

However……..at the time I read this, Durrell’s sensibilities gave me clear indication that I was, after all, not going to be cut out to be a naturalist myself. Although a clear lover of the wild, unconfined, natural world, and of the animal kingdom, he quickly made me realise that I was a definitely restricted speciesist – plants were wonderful, but my real love was for the warm-blooded furred and feathered creatures. Durrell delights in all of it, the slithering, the buzzing, the finny, the scaled, and anything which scuttles on somewhere between 6, 8 and a multiplicity of uncountable legs.

I had utterly forgotten (carefully buried the memory) from whence my shrieking horror of a species I have never met, in the flesh, came from:

Up on the hills among the dark cypress and the heather shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like wind-blown confetti, pausing now and then on a leaf to lay a salvo of eggs. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew drunkenly across the heather, their leaves shining in the sun. Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close

It is (I hope) clear what a wonderfully observant, carefully crafting writing Durrell is, as well as, of course, ditto, a naturalist. He regarded his older brother, Laurence, as the writer of the family, and only began his own (highly successful) books about his idyllic, (in his eyes, as a young naturalist) eccentric, anarchic time on Corfu, and his later books about his zoological expeditions around the world as an adult, in order to make money to finance them, and his own zoo.

That quoted paragraph shows also a rather assured and filmic, dramatic sense. He surely knows how to craft a scene, to build narrative, climax, change of pace and mood. I was lulled into a deceptively tranquil, dreamy, Edenic scene, with those wafts of butterflies, before the scene darkens, and the reader can almost feel a tension rising mood music, ratcheted up to the insecty equivalent of that shower scene in Psycho!

Durrell is a wonderful writer. Here there is a mixture of no doubt absolutely precise observation of the natural world and a certain amount of writerly shaping to emphasise the entertaining aspect provided by his strongly defined, individual, family members: remarkably tolerant Mother, the almost comically artistic/intellectual elder brother Larry, with his equally Bohemian ‘set’ paying visits to what Larry was offering as open house artistic colony with sunshine, vino, and food on tap. Gerry’s other brother Leslie, the practical one, happily tinkering with building boats, cleaning guns, and shooting the wildlife, and sister Margo, defined as romantic and a bit of a magnet for local and visiting swains. There are various brilliantly structured set pieces around Gerry and a succession of arriving and departing tutors, vainly trying to find ways to teach the budding naturalist the basics of an academic syllabus, spicing the dull stuff, ‘If it takes x number of men x hours to dig a trench’ with inserts culled from the natural world – forget men and trenches, substitute tortoises looking to safely lay their eggs.

Best of all is an extended dramatic French farce sketch, involving snakes and renegade birds discovered in unlikely places, during a huge all day party, for family, visiting friends and locals. This had me snorting, chuckling and guffawing in an otherwise silent tube carriage. Irrepressibly joyous writing.

Tea would arrive, the cakes squatting on cushions of cream, toast in a melting shawl of butter, cups agleam, and a faint wisp of steam rising from the teapot spout

This book, and its sequels, was turned into a successful TV mini-series in the late 80s. One I felt unable to watch. The power of Durrell’s writing creating those images of mantid malevolence meant I was scared in case they featured in the natural history bits! There was also a later adaptation of the book.

There is such joy, such delight, such warmth in the writing, and, like the family, falling under the spell of the landscape, the reader falls in love with Durrell’s gloriously unclichéd, visceral evocation

Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality

I also knew that Durrell’s later life had had certain struggles (as life tends to have) so I re-read this with a sense of poignancy. There is such effervescence, joy and love in this recounting of a childhood. Maybe a certain amount of rose-coloured spectacles and maybe that childhood was not always as idyllic as set out here, though there is no doubt in the solace and excitement the young Gerry found in his ‘other animals’

My Family and Other Animals Amazon UK
My Family and Other Animals Amazon USA

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John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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Warm hearted narrative: a 70 year span of changing attitudes towards sexuality.

John Boyne’s beautifully titled ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ reminds me not a little of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart/ The New Confessions. A central character, fictional, with some connections to the artistic world, is taken through a lifetime’s sweep of cultural and attitudinal shifts, often around personal relationships. The individual life story is set within the wider story playing out. Fictional characters within the book, who are artists of some kind, with a body of work, are nudged by comparison with real works, and ‘real named characters’ flit through on the sidelines as passing players. This gives a hook to make the reader feel they are reading ‘reality’ rather than the fiction they are actually reading, but the ethics of making ‘real’ characters do things they didn’t do, is not transgressed, as the ‘real people’ are left as minor, background, chorus.

There are a couple of important characters in this book, written about at length, both of whom are writers, and though I did know these were ‘fictional’ their work was described so well, and their history and psychology seemed so authentic and believable that I did have to Google their Wiki pages, and search for the titles of their works on Amazon, laughing at my foolishness whilst I did so.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies takes place primarily in Ireland, but also in the Netherlands and America, from 1945-2015. It follows the life of, and is narrated by, Cyril Avery, the adopted son of a rather unusual couple, the writer Maude Avery and the successful (but sometimes fraudulent) financier Charles Avery. Maude and Charles are both self-obsessed, eccentric and larger than life. They are not cruel parents, though they are rather indifferent and laissez-faire ones, absorbed in their own pursuits. Cyril, narrator of this story, begins his first person narrative at the age of 7, in 1952, a rather shy and lonely little boy. He has, from this early age, even without quite understanding its importance, had a kind of falling in love with a much more extrovert, defined and assured little boy, whom he briefly meets, the son of Charles Avery’s solicitor.

Friendships and loves, sometimes in the unlikeliest of guises, are going unfold across a lifetime, in a kind of tapestry of many colours and textures in this book : tragic, heart-breaking, joyous, accommodating, kind, bitter, reconciled, and at times amusing and surprising.

However……Cyril’s story starts before his birth, when he is still in his mother’s womb, and he does not learn this part of the story till he is in late middle age, when it is recounted to him. This is the story he tells us, in reflection, and it starts the book, with surely a most wonderfully hooking, seductive paragraph :

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Munroe stood on the altar of The Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore

I was utterly hooked by the rhythms of that opening sentence and by the carefully exploded bombshells, and had to read on. Nor was I disappointed. Here is a writer, a story teller, who bowled me along for nearly 600 pages, and the journey itself, long as it was, did not seem so. It was a full, eventful one; a grand one

Pulling me back for complete 5 star surrender: very late in the day, Cyril turns out to be a dry and witty man, particularly in conversation, not something he had displayed much of earlier. This did feel, a little, as if the writer had felt the need to inject some wit, humour and banter in the dialogue as we neared the end of the journey.

If I’m being hypercritical, there are a lot of coincidences which drive encounters and plot along – though I must say Boyne manages them with wonderful charm. I think this is because the reader (but not the central character) is kept aware that there will be meetings and connections which will drift in and out until their final connections become clear to Cyril, in the patterns of his own story. The sense of it seemed to me like some courtly, formal dancing in sets – partners change but all will meet again as the dancers move around the circle, and down the line of sets. And like this kind of dancing, there is a joy in the lovely pattern of changes, repetitions, and the form itself.

This is a book the reader can happily lose themselves in. Lock the door, take the phone off the hook, ignore interruptions, they will only annoy

I was delighted to receive this from Amazon Vine UK

The Heart’s Invisible Furies Amazon UK
The Heart’s Invisible Furies Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Overture to Death

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Theatrical Am-Drams, and a darkening mood in Marsh

As I continue on my sequential journey through ‘The Empress’ of the Golden Age of Crime, it is not surprising that with this one, published in 1939, a began to feel a darker and more sombre tone developing. Marsh’s own craft in writing is appreciable growing and, in this one, not only are characters becoming more layered, and more psychologically interesting, but there is also an occasional ‘stream of consciousness’, from inside the minds of some of the major characters – including those under suspicion

The longings of two friend-and-rival spinsters of the parish, female jealousy in general, not to mention the destructive talents of a femme fatale in a small community are brilliantly laid out in this. Yes, Marsh retains her usual style and her usual wit and light touch, but there is also pathos. This does not just come from Alleyn and his team, who are all refreshingly well-functioning individuals, but it also comes from some of those who may not like some of the other characters within the community (for good reason) but do come to appreciate the depth of suffering the unlikeable ones might be experiencing: they might be a little more than just figures of fun, mockery and irritation

Rachmaninov’s Prelude plays an important role in the story……..

The generally upper middle class denizens of a small community are engaged in some pleasurably entertaining ‘good works’ – am-drams to raise money for a cause close to their own hearts – a better piano in the village hall. Into the mix and another (of course) ingenious murder are thrown the spinsters, the object of their affections (the local high Anglican cleric) an affair which might damage the social standing of someone otherwise respected in the community, a pair of star crossed (or at least, minorly class crossed lovers) and the added complication that the local police surgeon and the local acting chief constable are not only witnesses but might themselves have motive for murder.

A solo piano version of Ethelbert Nevin’s Venetian Suite is also much discussed

All the usual and expected formulas are in place, so murder ingeniously managed and the eventual ‘re-staging of the scene of the crime’ which will flush out the murder for the benefit of the reader and the innocent others, are present. Alleyn and his brothers in the Yard had already solved the case, but just are waiting to precipitate denouement/confession/evidence. Blessed Bathgate, of course, is as slow on the uptake (or, possibly, even slower) than Marsh’s devoted readers

Overture to Death Amazon UK
Overture to Death Amazon USA

Colm Tóibín – House of Names

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“As flies to wanton schoolboys are we to the gods”…..? (King Lear)

It is always a deep delight to submerge into a book by Tóibín, whether he is writing about modern times and places, or is deep within a past which is so long ago that it has become part of mythology, where whatever was ‘real’ has accreted metaphor and patterned story over itself.

Here Tóibín is engaged with the latter, the deep past, a dark, terrifying place which is perhaps, part history, part long ago tales where history is entwined with the mysterious gods, where the workings out of the divisions between ‘fate’ and free will, lie. Morality, justice, retribution, deep lore, deep taboos. Whose laws, not to mention whose lores and whose taboos are we observing or breaking?

House of Names is the story being played out in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a play dating from some 500 years before the Christian Era. This is also a story told in Homer’s Iliad, so the narrative would have been known to the audience. In keeping with this tradition, Tóibín prefaces his story by letting the reader know what the narrative events were. We, like the play’s audience, need not to be distracted from ‘why and how’ by ‘what happens next’ in this story of the curse of the House of Atreus.

Clytemnestra: “It was the fire that brought the news, not the gods. Among the gods now there is no one who offers me sustenance or oversees my actions or knows my mind. There is no one among the gods to whom I appeal. I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.

I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again. Instead I will speak in ordinary whispers. I will speak in words that come from the world, and those words will be filled with regret for what has been lost

Clytemnestra, kills her warrior husband King Agamemnon, and has plotted his death for some years, with her lover Aegisthus. Monstrous Clytemnestra, we might think. Except, this is deep revenge, or even, retribution, and is a dish served very cold of some years in the making, following a monstrous act committed by Agamemnon – the sacrifice of his (and Clytemnestra’s) young daughter Iphigenia. This was apparently a demand made by the goddess Artemis, whom Agamemnon offended. The goddess promises victory in war if this sacrifice is made. Agamemnon tricks Clytemnestra into bringing their young daughter to where the army is waiting. The Queen believed her daughter was going to be married to the heroic and idolised Achilles. Instead, she has brought her daughter to a funeral, not to a wedding at all. Monstrous Agamemnon. The King and Queen had other, younger children, and two of them are major players in a continuing, horrible history. Electra is the younger daughter, not the favoured one. Orestes, still a young boy, idolises, like Electra, father over mother. The final act of a tragedy of the daughter murdered by the father, the husband murdered by his wife, to avenge the daughter, will be the son, helped by his sister, killing the mother to avenge the killing of the father.

Clytemnestra: “If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do? Who else would tell us what to do? I realised that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done. In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods

These Ancient Greeks are deeply, terrifyingly dysfunctional in this tale, clearly, but their ‘role’ is also to show aspects of human nature, to make the audience/listener/reader engage in weighty thought, felt and inhabited debate on questions of morality, justice, free will versus ‘destiny in the stars’

Electra: “I gravitate from their world, the world of speech and real time and mere human urges, towards a world that has always been here. Each day, I appeal to the gods to help me prevail. I appeal to them to oversee my brother’s days and help him return, I appeal to them to give my own spirit strength when the time comes. I am with the gods in their watchfulness as I watch too

And how wonderfully this dark tale is served by Tóibín, who can take small lives, the lives of ordinary people and make them stand for thousands (Nora Webster) and, as here, operatic, mythic lives, possibly the movers and shakers of history, and bring them to a scale where they become recognisably human like ourselves.

      Source: BBC website, In our Time : The Oresteia (Chorus)

The style of the telling is curious, and interesting. The female protagonists, Clytemnestra and Electra are given a first person narrative. Orestes, first as a young adolescent, later as a young man has his history and point of view told in the third person.

The effect of this is that though inevitably females in this society have far less obvious power, both Clytemnestra and Electra watchfully wait, plan and instigate action, of their own volition. Their identities become clear to themselves. Clytemnestra is allowed to speak for her own case, in this ‘I’ voice, and the reader can follow a coherence in the character, however much the actions of others may thwart her. And Electra, although initially much less powerful, feeling herself with less autonomy, more an instrument of fate decided by the gods, is repeatedly shown as developing her mother’s steely resolve. She moves steadily into taking her own power, a sense of the will of ‘I’ ; ‘I’ decide, ‘I’act, ‘I’ take responsibility.

Orestes story is third person. Although he is the one to strike the killing blow, right from the start, by the third person voice, in contrast, is a kind of inability to take ownership and coherence for self. I found this a brilliant stylistic way to underline the character aspects Tóibín suggests for Orestes. And, curiously, this stirred my pity, most, for him. That small child, desperately seeking approval from male role models, father figures, as he ‘plays soldiers’ continues in the later Orestes section, where we see him as young man. Writing method underlined personality and psychology

Orestes: “We live in a strange time,” Electra said “A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings”

He did not know how to reply to this…….Instead, he listened carefully……He wondered about the accuracy of what she said……..he did not mention this

House of Names took me further into a fascination I already had with Ancient Greece, which seems so very far away and alien on one level, but, on another could be seen as close and accessible. As I read, particularly in the early Orestes section, I thought of more modern times, of recent conflicts, where rough justice, outwith the rule of law, is meted out; individuals, performing honour killings, factions united around shades of ideological beliefs, both secular and faith based, around nationalisms and ethnicities, taking the blade, the gun, the explosive device into their own hands, carrying out killings to ‘serve’ some ideology or another. Is this any different from ‘actions put in train by fate, serving curses and retributions laid down by the gods’ That eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you killed mine, I kill yours, you then kill mine in revenge and retribution for my action in killing yours, which was my revenge and retribution for your killing of mine.

    William Adolphe Bouguereau : The Remorse of Orestes, 1862

And, of course, all these many layers and continued thinking Tóibín brought me to, happened subliminally. He does not feel didactic to me but somehow seeps his characters, his worlds into mine.

I was delighted to receive this as a digital version for review from the publishers via NetGalley

House of Names Amazon UK
House of Names Amazon UK

Jennie Melamed – Gather The Daughters

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Female Dystopias

Jennie Melamed’s Gather The Daughters does of course inevitably remind the reader of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This was such an extraordinary and shocking book at the time of its publication. Atwood had put no completely invented ideology into it; she sewed together trends, happenings and events from across history and geography. Atwood casts a long shadow, but Melamed, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who specialises in working with traumatised children, has clearly had her own professional experiences which have gestated this book.

Unfortunately, various world events – such as the kidnapping of young Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the democratic election of Trump, despite his ‘locker room’ boast of entitlement to grab and grope, not to mention the regular exposés of historic child abuse cases – sadly indicate that the need for writers to shock and warn us against any complacent thinking that the war for female equality and control over one’s own body has been won, is still a pressing one.

Melamed’s book is set in a possibly not far distant future, though it harks back to earlier, simpler times

Some cataclysmic apocalyptic world event has happened. Possibly. A small group of influential men have established a patriarchal, small island colony. Here, life is made secure and possibly viable, at least if you are one of the influential men. These rulers, The Wanderers, do maintain certain links with the Badlands, where some kind of plague, some kind of terrible devastation lurks. Occasionally, a new family will arrive on the island.

Harking back to some kind of particularly warped Amish style community, there are strict controls in place. These are mainly directed against women. Marriage happens remarkably early, within a year of the onset of menstruation. Life is also short, and once physical fitness is past early shuffling off of mortal coil is expected. There are also strictures on the number of children allowed. The powerful have devised ways to manage this, mainly through the indoctrination of a should and should not Holy Book, devised, as they so often are, for the powerful to keep others without power

Thou shalt not allow thy wife to stray in thought, deed or body. Thou shalt not allow women who are not sister, daughter or mother to gather without a man to guide them. Thou shalt not kill.

There is a brief, idyllic period set aside for the children. With rigid rules in place from birth till death, for all, and especially for the female all, a short summer season where children are allowed to run feral, live outside, and do as they please is a small time of wild paradise. Everyone knows the dark rules and the dark penalties for infringing those rules outside the brief summer escape. There is no other freedom of expression – except that resistance also, always needs to find ways and means.

Melamed tells this religious cult, island story through the voices of some of the girls. Janey is the oldest, the most dangerously subversive, starving herself in order to delay the onset of menstruation, marriage, motherhood. Amanda was her closest friend, but Amanda is now married and pregnant, her time of brief freedom and escape forever gone. Vanessa is daughter to one of the wanderers, the ruling elite; Caitlin the daughter of a particularly brutal man, not one of the especially privileged, though every man is privileged enough, in this society.

She discovers that grief is a liquid. It passes thickly down her throat as she drinks water and pools soggily around her food. It flows through her veins, dark and heavy, and fills the cavities of her bones until they weigh so much she can barely lift her head….At night, it rises up from the floor silently until she feels it seep into the bedclothes, lick at her heels and elbows and throat, thrust upward like a rising tide that will drown her in sorrow

Melamed recounts her quite horrific story with much delicacy and finesse. It is a spell binding story, a malevolent one, a warning one – and, unfortunately given the seeping violence of the times, wreaked by those who seek to turn back, in various ways, the freedoms women won during the twentieth century, a story one must hope is not, in any way, prophetic

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine. It will be published on 25th July

Gather the Daughters Amazon UK
Gather the Daughters Amazon USA

Stuart Maconie – Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now

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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana

Stuart Maconie, author, broadcaster, journalist and commentator on cultural and social history is, by virtue of education and profession, now one of the intelligentsia. Very much a Lancashire lad (Wigan, as he reminds us) he has not lost his roots, and has a pleasing down to earth quality in his writing. Thoughtful, intelligent, warm, humorous, this also shows a lively interest in people in all their diversity.

In the wake of last year’s referendum, Maconie, like many of us, found himself musing on our divided nation. Connections between the 1930’s and the present seemed to be suggesting themselves, as right wing, populist politics, divisive and suspicious of outsiders, seemed on the rise

2016 was the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Jarrow March/Jarrow Crusade, occasioned by the closure of the single employer on which all else depended, the steelworks. Unemployment was rising in the country, and the gaps between rich and poor, South and North, were obvious. 200 men set out to march to London to deliver a petition to Parliament. Jarrow captured the public imagination, and the March has become a legend of dignity,resistance and solidarity on the one hand and uncaring capitalism on the other, a divided nation

Maconie, a keen walker, decided to emulate the 300 mile journey made by the Marchers, following their daily itinerary, ‘visiting the same towns and comparing the two Englands of then and now’

Some of the parallels were very clear:

The rise of extremism here and abroad fired by financial disasters, a wave of demagoguery and ‘strong man’ populism. Foreign wars driven by fundamentalist ideologies leading to the mass displacement of innocent people. A subsequent refugee ’crisis’. The threat of constitutional anarchy with conflict between government, parliament and judiciary. Manufacturing industries, especially steel, facing extinction….Inflammatory rhetoric stoked by a factionalised press…….A country angrily at odds with itself over its relationship to Europe, the elephant in the nation: Brexit

This is far more than a purely personal story of one man’s walk. Maconie engages with the people he meets, garners stories of then and now, recounts the history of the places he travels through,, whilst following some of his own interests, football, music – of all kinds, and finding, often conviviality and hospitality around food, reflecting the cultures who have added, across the centuries, to the rich loam of this island .

Alan Price’s 1974 jarrow Song with 1936 British Pathe Films footage

This is an engaging, fascinating account, sometimes angry, often scathing about those whose manipulations fostered the divisions and uncertainties we now face, populists of the right and of the left. What stands out, again and again, is the richness of a culture, in this country, which has always been eclectic, fed by generations of ‘outsiders’ across the centuries, settling, marrying, having children who have feet in the history and culture of the new homeland, and influences from the old. ‘ Britishness’ develops, as it always has

              Marchers with their MP ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson

In some ways, albeit with more humour, this reminds me, in the serious things it is saying, of Joe Bagent’s 2008 ‘Deer Hunting With Jesus’ : Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America, which looks at the rise of support for the Republican Party which came from those who might have been expected to find the Democrats their home.

This is cultural and social history as I prefer it – humanly, rather than statistically explored, entertaining whilst informing.

I was delighted to be offered this as an ARC, from the publishers via NetGalley, and thoroughly enjoyed this 300 mile walk, with no blisters, and in totally clement weather

Long Road from Jarrow Amazon UK
Long Road from Jarrow Amazon USA

Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent

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Gothic, serpentine, sinuous narrative, rippling with interest and vitality

Sarah Perry’s 1890s set novel is one of huge vitality, imagination and verve. In some ways her delight in language, her playfulness, and the exuberance of her story telling remind me of Sarah Waters in her earlier outings which were also set in slightly earlier Victorian times : Fingersmith and Affinity (1860s and 1870s)

The Essex Serpent has achieved both commercial and critical success, and I had held off from it, fearful that this was just marketing spin. Eventually surrendering, it was clear from the off its plaudits are well deserved. Perry has crafted a most enjoyable read. She tells a good story, creates memorable characters and is also writing informatively and thoughtfully ‘about stuff’ . Principally social issues around privilege and the lack of it, the conflict between religion and science, and female emancipation, at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Occasionally I did feel she created one or two over complicated issues (the autistic son) plus the odd moment where things felt just a little out of time and modern – a bit too much to-ing and fro-ing and travelling between coastal Essex and London : journey times would have been considerably longer and a swift visit to the British Museum Reading Room in order to get some information to enhance a Sunday sermon seemed a little twentyfirst century casual commute rather than 1890s.

Perry’s aim has been to show a different view of Victorian society, and, particularly its women, focusing more on the unusual, radical, progressive elements rather than the mainstream who might have lived within prim, submissive conformity within a paternalist culture.

Cora Seaborne has recently been widowed. Her deceased, much older husband is/was one of the few really unpleasant characters in Perry’s novel. Sadistic, controlling and, frankly just a powerful, influential bully, he had captivated Cora when she was impressionable and young. One of Perry’s strengths is that she gives the reader enough information to make sense of people and their history, but does not get caught up in needing to over-explain everything. Hence, the reader is left uneasy about what appears to be a branding mark inflicted on Cora, and our imaginations will provide further shadowy questions about a toxic marriage whose specific parameters do not need to be gratuitously spelt out.

Colchester Earthquake of 1883 – ripples on in this book

Cora, despite the endured abuse, has a keen and enquiring mind, and thinks for herself, whatever external strictures were placed on her by her thankfully now dead spouse. She is captivated by science, by Darwin, by Mary Anning. Now a woman of independent means, she can choose to turn reading about the natural sciences into practical investigation. She is a strong female presence, not a submissive or surrendering one, and intends to follow the star of her intelligence and passion for knowledge, debate and discourse. She is not a beauty according to the standards of her time, but her unusual vitality and independence of thought do make her attractive to others similarly unconventional, and free-thinking

you cannot always keep yourself away from things that hurt you. We all wish that we could, but we cannot: to live at all is to be bruised

Martha is a similarly unusual individual in the Seaborne household. She is Nanny to Francis, Cora’s autistic son, and is a radical socialist, a follower of Eleanor Marx, passionately concerned with righting the wrongs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed, with a particular interest in provision of social housing for the poor – initiatives like Peabody date from the 1860s. Also dancing attendance on Cora is a young doctor, radical in his field, interesting in exploring cutting edge (literally) developments, particularly in surgery. Dr Luke Garrett, and his more conventional kind hearted friend and colleague George Spencer are the means by which the reader learns much that is fascinating about late nineteenth century medicine. Friendship itself, between the sexes as well as within the sexes is a major theme of this novel. In almost every relationship it is the mental, and emotional connections which are the lasting and transforming ones rather than sexual connections. Sex, whether expressed overtly or covertly is a powerful driver also in the novel, but it is friendship which provides endurance.

 

Woodcut from 1669 pamphlet : Guardian Review by M.John Harrison

And so to the title – The Essex Serpent takes Cora and her entourage (and us) out of London and to an imaginary location in Essex’s coastal waters. There have been, by all accounts, mysterious sightings of a ‘sea monster’ (one assumes some kind of oceanic Loch Ness Monster). Dark and subterranean rumours about the monster surface, laced with symbolism and biblical portents, terrifying and titillating the local population in equal measure.

The local vicar, Will Ransome, a man of sure, and at the same time, rational faith, is determined to stress the importance of living a good, moral life through practical ‘love your neighbour’ Christianity. He espouses Christianity with a social conscience, and strives to be a moral compass for his flock, encouraging living through kindliness and compassion without appeals to the fear of hellfire or the fevered prophecies of the Book of Revelations. Some of his flock gravitate far more naturally towards that gothic outlook.

His was not the kind of religion lived only in rule and rubric, as if he were a civil servant and God the permanent secretary of a celestial government department. He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out

Cora and Will, both naturally enquiring and subtly thoughtful have divergent views about the world of matter, but neither is as closed minded as each initially supposed. A curious and strong friendship forms between them, with argument and disagreement uniting them as much as it divides them. Both are extremely keen to solve the ‘mystery’ of The Essex Serpent, and both hope that their own theories will be right. In many ways, Cora and Will are ‘soulmates’ precisely because intelligence, subtlety and warm-heartedness mean they can discourse with each other about matters which can’t be understood by others. Will’s beautiful, ethereal wife Stella is loved by all – including Cora, who forms a firm friendship with her. She is a well-rounded, more interesting version of the sweet ‘child-wife’ staple of some Victorian fiction – Dora in David Copperfield.

Perry’s book has been severally described as a historical novel, a romance, Victorian gothic, and a novel of ideas. All of the above.

On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels, Autumn fends off the diligent winter: it’s a warm clear-eyed month, with a barbarous all-too-much beauty. 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.

She writes beautifully, but does not write indulgently beautifully.

Perhaps part of the afterword, in my Kindle edition shows best what Perry aims for. And succeeds in doing, in my opinion

My ambition as a writer is – more than anything else, I think – to give joy and pleasure to readers; to convey to them the love I feel for my characters, and the places they walk, and to have them feel what my characters feel.

Bravo, Sarah Perry. You do and you did.

The Essex Serpent Amazon UK
The Essex Serpent Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Death in A White Tie

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Duchesses, Dignitaries and Debutantes Dance with Death

No less a ‘hard boiled’ crime writer than Dashiell Hammett called Marsh’s 7th Alleyn outing, Death in A White Tie ‘the best detective story I have ever read’ And it is indeed magnificent, though Marsh is a very different kind of crime writer than the gritty Americans of the same period.

Published in 1938, and impeccably set in the upper-class world of debutantes coming out for the season, Alleyn gets swept into this particular investigation in part through his mother, who is chaperoning his niece and her ‘bestie’ into their first season. And coincidentally Alleyn is already beginning to hone his intellect and his team into an investigation of the society set, as it appears a blackmailer is moving amongst them. Our hero has to tread carefully, using his society credentials without alarming those who are running the racket.

Things get much darker and much nastier though, when a murder which touches Alleyn personally turns the desire to find the killer into far more than a dispassionate solving of a crime. Grief and anger, not to mention a sense of personal responsibility are in this mix.

Glorious!! Benedict Cumberbatch uploaded to You Tube in a 7 part Audible read of this. Perfect delivery! Perfect! I am rarely entranced by voiceovers of books but, this..!

Further complications, making this more than just the routine solving of a crime are also on the agenda. Alleyn has some unresolved business to sort out with the well-respected artist Agatha Troy, who was involved for a while as a potential suspect in the previous outing, ‘Artists in Crime’ She is certainly guilty of capturing Alleyn’s heart, although being a suspect in a murder investigation does not necessarily make the best way for a far from faint heart to win a fair lady.

Alleyn (as ever) is a very human, very real person, getting more and more three dimensional as the series progresses

Death in a White Tie Amazon UK
Death in a White Tie Amazon USA

Julian Daizan Skinner – Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond

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A helpful, de-mystifying and practical approach

I was delighted to receive this as a digital ARC from Singing Dragon. The fact that this book is published by them, almost guaranteed its excellence for me. Some publishers of books which fall into a loose ‘New Age’ category can be a little goofy, sensationalist and flaky for my tastes. Singing Dragon specialise in good writers in the field, knowledgeable in their various disciplines, excellent communicators

And so it is here.

Julian Daizan Skinner writes clearly about a subject which can be a challenging one for those of us unversed in the traditions and concepts of Zen Buddhism. You don’t need to have spent years on a spiritual path in order to understand what he explains. This author offers guidance for beginners in a meditation practice, without being so full of difficult and detailed instruction that the would-be meditator gets a headache from trying to remember too many bullet points.

we don’t need to particularly change ourselves into something else. We don’t have to go on painful courses of practice or force ourselves in any way. This is about acknowledging the truth of who we are , who we were and who we will always be

The author finds simple language, useful images to explain some complex concepts, and to offer routes by which the meditator may be able to glimmeringly grasp something as a signpost. It does not feel like something simplified and reduced to unlovely bare bones of ‘do this, do that’ either. More like being shown an open door to a room full of boundless fascination. You can stand outside the room, and look in, or you can choose to enter and really explore at depth, and journey onwards. Perhaps through further rooms whose doors are as yet unknown.

This book is inviting, simple, guiding the reader to explore this particular meditation practice in a built on way : an 8 week process of 25 minute sittings per day, plus a 5 minute journal keeping of what arises. There is also plenty of additional support offered, via the zenways website. This includes details of sitting groups, intensive 1 and 3 days meditation retreats, yoga trainings.

Even better, the book gives a password protected entry to the on site material – information and the guided meditations laid out in the text are available as audio downloads, and also a video of one of the meditations which involves specific movements to energise belly and legs linked with the breathing. This is useful for those who might prefer a guided session.

There is also plenty for those who might want to explore the subject more deeply – many cited texts, discourses on the philosophy and history of different approaches to Zen, so though this is, in essence, a practical guide, it offers more.

What really ‘got’ me about this excellent book, even more than its clarity in communication, is the kindness and compassion it radiated

Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond Amazon UK
Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Artists in Crime

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Love, Art and Murder

Travelling back from New Zealand, where he has been recuperating after an operation (and solving a theatrical crime) Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets a rather remarkable woman on board the ship. Agatha Troy, known to all as Troy, is a well-respected artist. She is completely uninterested in flirtatious, simpering feminine wiles, full of subterfuge, but is direct, driven, and motivated to excellence in her work. Some kind of almost unwelcome frisson occurs between Alleyn and Troy. Each is a little suspicious of their own feelings, and sure only of the indifference felt by the other.

Some time later, matters murderous happen in an artist’s retreat and painting school which Troy is running, for a group of strongly egotistic, often highly competitive and unconventional artists. Chance dictates that Troy’s studio is only a few miles away from the Alleyn family home and that Alleyn is visiting his adored and wonderful mother, Lady Alleyn. Location means that the local force are more than happy to draft in the famous, brilliant investigator to solve a case beyond their normal abilities. Alleyn, along with his trusty familiar crew, Inspector Fox, Bailey-the-fingerprints, Thompson-the-photographics are also joined by the journalist with an ear to the ground about exploits Alleyn – Nigel Bathgate, happily married to Angela North from Book 1 of the series, who is about to give birth.

Still Life by Marsh

The solving of yet another ingenious and horrid crime is of course the thrust of the book, but, as always, there are other delights along the way. Not least of which is getting to know more about Alleyn’s family background. He must be a particularly unusual detective in a series, – certainly unlike most detectives in more modern series – as not only is he neither a drug or drink abusing maverick with tendency to serial bed-hopping who comes from a dysfunctional family, but he has, instead, a particularly warm relationship with his lovely, intelligent, well liked, charming mother. Mother and son clearly love, like, respect and appreciate each other, with good reasons for doing so, on both sides. Lady Alleyn, like her son, is a thoroughly good egg, with spirit, wit and individuality. She is also keenly and intelligently interested in her son’s profession. And would dearly like him to find the kind of exceptional woman who would be a fine and fitting match for him.

Unfortunately, matters of the heart are bound to be a little difficult when Alleyn is bound to consider Troy as one of the potential suspects in the artists’ murder mystery. She is someone who appears to have both motive and opportunity, as of course do the usual gathering of others in this painterly version of the classic country house murder.

This is book 6 of the series, and as enjoyable as the previous 5

Artists in Crime Amazon UK
Artists in Crime Amazon USA