The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I am a big fan of literature written in or set in the Victorian era. Even so I often wonder what exactly it is that appeals so much to modern readers (myself included) about this time period. Maybe it’s that such a lot of English literature that we read at schools, colleges and universities comes from the 19th Century. Or maybe it’s a TV thing: period dramas seem to have an enduring appeal to viewers, which spills over into our reading habits.

The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th Century, tells the story of widow Cora who travels into Essex in search of scientific discoveries. She soon hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious creature that stalks the village of Aldwinter. It was last ‘seen’ in the 17th Century, but a rising tide of hysteria seems to be gripping the villagers. Cora views this as a scientific adventure and hopes to be able to bring a newly discovered species to London to display. In this she disagrees with William Ransome, the local vicar who is filled with faith, yet also entirely rational when it comes to the presence of the serpent. They are drawn together into a friendship and mutual affection, which threatens to develop into something more.

This story is so beautifully told, with amazing descriptions of natural landscapes, but also a focus on historical detail from a time period where the world was under-going rapid change and discovery. The relationship between Will and Cora is subtle and entirely believable, but also the focus on medicine, science and socialism draws the reader into a much broader world than that of just two characters. In fact we follow several different characters from a variety of backgrounds, all trying to find their place in a world that is changing around them at a rapid pace.

A well-told, intelligent work of historical fiction that I would most definitely recommend.

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‘The Lie Tree’ – well deserved award winner

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Faith’s family move to the island of Vane, where her father’s unusually secretive pursuit of natural science lead to his death in highly suspicious circumstances. In order to discover the truth, Faith places her trust in the Lie Tree, feeding it with a growing range of dangerous untruths. She soon discovers that both lies and truth contain hidden dangers for everyone…

The Lie Tree is a brilliant story: a supernatural historical adventure would probably be the best way to describe it. I enjoyed it from the first to the last page and am now keen to read some of Hardinge’s other stories. I completely forgot that this was written for young adults; it’s a plot that is engaging for everyone.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story had a strong female protagonist; Faith rebels against all the rules that society sets into place for her, and makes her own decisions.

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s well written, exciting and thought – provoking from cover to cover!

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack is 5 years old and lives in a single room with his Ma. He’s never been Outside and the only glimpse he gets of the world is through a skylight in the roof and on the TV; he struggles to understand what is real. For his 5th birthday his Ma makes a simple cake and draws him a picture. This is Jack’s life until his Ma plans a daring escape, with Jack at the centre of it.

I find books written in a child’s voice to be a challenge at times; authors can find it hard to strike a balance between childlike and just plain silly. Room actually gets the balance just right, and what emerges is a really fascinating insight into a child in a truly awful situation.

What I enjoyed the most was that the story doesn’t end with the escape; in fact it focuses on the fact that the outside world is actually far scarier for Jack. People around him struggle to come to terms with the idea that for a child who was born and raised in a single room with no windows, adjusting to Outside is not easy or simple. Even his Ma has a place in the world and understanding of it that is beyond Jack’s capabilities.

I really loved this book and highly recommend it but my only piece of advice is to set some time aside, because once you start it you won’t want to put it down.

‘Harvest’, by Jim Crace… and my reading habits.

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It’s been over a month since I last published a post on my blog and while I like to think the reasons for that are quite complex,  when I think it through,  it’s quite simple really. I haven’t finished any books. That’s it.

Of course that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. Actually I’ve been reading quite a lot. In fact I’ve been reading 5 or 6 books and switching in and out of them. The sad fact is that none of them really drew me in and most have been abandoned mid-way through.

Then, a visit to the local  library, I spotted ‘Harvest’ and decided to give it a try. From page one I was hooked. It tells the story of an unnamed English village at a time when farming changed dramatically.  Through the eyes of narrator Walter Thirsk we see the village torn apart within one week by a mixture of outside interference in the name of progress and the villagers’ own mistrust of all outsiders. What starts as a single foolish act by some of the villagers sparks conflict, accusations of witchcraft and even murder.

The story is told in almost poetic prose and really draws you in to sympathise with the narrator, himself an outsider to the village. The ending brings a sense of sadness at all that has been lost but also an understanding of the need for personal protest, no matter how small.

 

‘The Lowland’ Jhumpa Lahiri

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This novel, shortlisted for The Baileys Prize, tells the story of Subhash and Udayan, brothers who grow up in Calcutta, next to the lowland of the title.

What begins as a story of closeness and family soon becomes one of distance,  both literal and emotional. The death of Udayan affects four generations of the family, pushing them apart. Lahiri’s detached prose style perfectly reflects this, taking us on a journey that spans thousands of miles, over 50 years and many examples of fractured relationships.

Understated, but containing a complexity of emotion, it is an interesting read, although at times I did feel that it lacked pace.