Wednesday 1 March 2017

The Essex Serpent

I have whizzed through 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry since it is in a long queue and the library limits the loan to two weeks.  I was a little bemused by this book since I expected some kind of mystery, certainly a dark threatening undercurrent and sinister happenings, but there was nothing like that at all. It is in effect a love story; a story about love in all its many and varied forms, filial, romantic, platonic, sexual, unconditional and (by no means least) unrequited. It is the bonds between the characters that forms the basis for the story; Cora and Martha, Luke Garrett and George Spencer, William Ransome and Mr Cracknell, Joanna and Naomi. And silently observing them all, Francis, son of Cora and Michael Seaborne; a slightly odd young boy with what are obviously autistic qualities, not understood by his mother, but recognised and acceded to. They are all interesting and well rounded characters, who manage to make the somewhat haphazard story engaging. I felt there was rather too much going on, that too many different tracks were being followed. The basic tale of a village under the threat of a mythical monster becomes a slightly confusing one of mass hysteria. The young man who's stab wound is repaired by Dr Garrett becomes the focus of attention in the political storyline that Martha is pursuing, and the man with a grudge against him makes a somewhat irrelevant reappearance. Stella falls ill and no one seems to notice when she drifts off into la la land. People seem to spend a lot of time just trudging round the countryside. It's almost as if each character has to be given their own private crisis, because the Essex Serpent turns out to be such a non event (sorry, spoiler). Several people are enamoured of another who does not return their affections, and on that front the outcome for pretty much every body was unsatisfactory. Some aspects of the story all felt a little contrived. 

I did like the fact that there was some real politics, which you don't find much in novels. Here is Spencer, contemplating the new housing policy:

"What at first had been merely a means of pleasing Martha has become ann obsession: he pores over Hansard and committee minutes, he puts on his worst coat and goes walking down past Drury Lane. He discovered Parliament's habit of making policies benevolently enough, and then covering its eyes and shaking hands with industry. Sometimes the greed and malice of what he sees appals him so much he thinks he must've misunderstood; he looks again, and it's worse than he thought. the local authorities tear down slums, and compensate landlords according to lost rents. Since nothing makes a tenement more profitable than vice and overcrowding, landlords facilitate both as diligently as any pimp in the street, and government rewards them handsomely. The tenants then turned out find themselves considered too immoral for a smart new Peabody home, and are left to find rooms in lodging-houses: there are times when the streets and full of firelight as tenants burn furniture too poor to be sold. Spencer thinks of his family home in Suffolk, where recently his mother discovered another room they'd never known was there, and is nauseated." (p.182-3)

I think my favourite character is Joanna Ransome (daughter of Will and Stella) and her transformation from superstitious child into thoughtful, intelligent and ambitious young woman. She epitomises how important role models were (and are) for young girls; she meets Cora and sees in her a woman who knows about and is interested in all manner of subjects, is always learning about things, and has a life beyond the domestic sphere. 
Things I did not like: dropping in brand names for products that people are using, it is unnecessary and jarring. And, sorry, but a really bad writing award goes to any author who gives a character 'violet eyes', it is a clichéd and lazy way of trying to make them seem unique, used by fantasy writers the world over and should definitely not be included in anything with pretensions to literary fiction. 
I have read several admiring reviews for this book, and although I enjoyed it I do not think it is anything special.

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