The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry | Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

On the morning that Brexit was officially announced, I was furiously reading the news. I was so focussed on being furious that when I got up to change trains at Rayners Lane, I left my copy of The Essex Serpent behind on the seat and wailed as it slowly drove away.

Why was I so sad, you may ask? Well, apart from the destruction of the European Union, I’d only left arguably the best book of the year on that train, didn’t I?

Frantic tweets were sent out and shared by Sarah Perry herself in the hope that we could reunite my poor nude copy – I had taken the dust cover off as I habitually rip them accidentally. Even lovely Sceptre, who had sent me it, assisted in the search – again, sorry guys. Unfortunately TFL failed me a little and never found my copy, and so after a few weeks I bought a new copy and lovingly devoured it at home, alongside my spare dust jacket.

If anyone has any ideas of what I can do with the spare dust jacket, please do say.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 17.13.30.png

The Essex Serpent follows recently widowed Cora Seabourne from her home in London into the wilds of Essex, on the hunt for scientific mysteries and hot on the trail of the mysterious serpent she’s heard tale of. Cora moves to the parish of Aldwinter, where she meets the local vicar, William Ransome, and a friendship like no other is borne. Will is religion, and Cora is science – their very relationship itself epitomises the Victorian crisis of faith. Their lives entangle deeper and deeper as they follow the mystery of The Essex Serpent and a number of strange goings on in Aldwinter.

Cora and Will take the main focus of the story, but I also loved the subplots involving her friends – furious feminist and socialist Martha and experimental physician Luke Garrett, both fighting for a future they see on the horizon. Perry’s character work is phenomenal, creating the luminous Stella Ransome and strange, curious Francis – a character I definitely read as autistic. This book absolutely sings with humanity, with complex people.

This dark gothic mystery is more than my review can ever do justice to. It is creepy and succulent and wonderful stuff, and reads like Sarah Waters by way of a naturalist, without the lesbians.

“I will be shocked if it isn’t weighed down in book prizes this time next year,” I said on an Instagram post back in August.

I knew that it was something special from the moment I laid hands on it, and was pushing it on everyone in both the shop and my personal life. I am happy to say there have been quite a few converts who came back to say how much they loved it too.

They say never judge a book by its cover, but The Essex Serpent boasts the most stunning dust cover I’ve seen in a long time. In celebration of its status as much coveted Waterstones Book of the Year, a special edition blue and silver version has been released.


Fans of the story will realise why blue is such a very good choice for this.

While it didn’t scoop the Costa Award last year’s  winner, The Lie Tree, shares so many gothic-fossil-hunting elements with The Essex Serpent that it made so much sense for it to take the prize.

I am really pleased it won Waterstones Book of the Year. I was still working for the company back when nominations were open, and wrote an essay much longer than this blog post, with significantly less punctuation, about why it should win.

It’s an impossibly strong novel that will stand up well against it’s contenders in the Bailey’s Prize longlist. I’m going to say now that I’m positive it will make the shortlist. THERE I SAID IT.

Have you read it yet? Let me know in the comments your thoughts and predictions!

Want to get your copy? Pick up the normal Hardback here or the Waterstones Exclusive Hardback here!

The Bailey’s Book Prize: Rush! Oh! by Shirley Barrett

I don’t know if you know, guys, but whales are amazing. I have quite a few books on the life history and biology of cetaceans of various species, and even have a whatsapp group with two of my other whale obsessed pals. So you’d naturally be surprised at me saying I recently read a novel about the whale hunting industry that decimated global populations and loved it (the book not the hunting obvs). I mean, I was surprised too.

Rush! Oh! is the first novel by Shirley Barrett, screenwriter and director, and its a pretty excellent debut, tackling a lesser known piece of history.

Screenshot 2016-04-10 at 11.16.57.png

Did you know that in New South Wales the whale hunters used to use other whales to act as sheepdogs to help bring down the target whales?! Orcas, yes the same magnificent beasts as poor old Tilikum,  cooperated in a symbiotic/mutualistic relationship with the human whale hunters to bring down whales, which they would share the bounty of – the orcas would get the tongue and lips, and the humans would get the blubber to render into oil. It’s absolutely fascinating, and apparently Eden has a small museum about it.

Not only that but the orcas could distinguish between the boats used and so wouldn’t hunt with competitors. Loyal sheepdog orcas. You got it.

And not only that, but they had a distinct method of communicating with the whale hunters that they were trailing a target whale, through flop-tail, upon seeing the whale hunters would head towards the orcas ready to spear.Rush! Oh! itself is the call to action upon seeing a whale or seeing Tom’s flop-tail signals.

I must admit I fell down an internet hole reading about it when I initially finished the book and while writing this review, probably why its taken me 9 weeks to write it (admittedly still not as bad as my 80for80 output). Also I realise that I’m talking more and more about the history and less about the actual book, so I’ll get back to it. But really, the history is fascinating grim stuff.

Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of the fictionalised Davidson clan (the Davidsons were real but Barrett has developed her own version of the family), decides to chronicle the difficult year of 1908, a year where the weather and whales were transient. Amidst all this arrives John Beck, mysterious and completely alluring to young Mary. Thus alongside the horrors of subsistence whaling forms a gentle romance, creating the most bizarre but realistic juxtaposition. Mary is strong and wilful, caring, and determined. I really liked her, probably more than her sister Louisa who is wonderfully flighty.

This is a really historically rich novel. Alongside the whaling industry, there is alludes to racism the white people direct towards aboriginal people, many of whom make up the Davidson’s whaling crew – important to remember that they still face oppression to this day, of course.

I really enjoyed Rush! Oh! and loved the beautiful illustrations of the whales and characters that pepper the text.

Why should it win?

Barrett combines a lesser known fascinating bit of grim history with a light story of family, first loves and community, creating a book both light and dark at once. Very enjoyable.

What to read next:

I was kindly sent postcards of some of the illustrations from Virago and Little Brown Book Company along with a review copy – thanks guys!

The Bailey’s Book Prize: The Portable Veblen

Content note: This blog discusses physical and verbal abuse of disabled people featured in the book.

As usual plot spoilers are within .

Did you know that squirrels not only remember what order they bury their food caches, but can also remember what they’ve buried and also its use by date. That’s right, squirrels are amazing. People are often split between squirrels, seeing them as “rats with a fluffy tail” in cities, despite them often being one of the few wild animals that city children see on a regular basis. I’m particularly fond of them, especially the cheeky dumpy ones in London parks who sidle up to you to see if you have any food and whether you will share it. I loved watching them hang upside down from branches in my grandmother’s garden, pilfering tasty treats from the bird feeders. I love the tufty eared red ones that live in scented forests near home, filled with the energy of Squirrel Nutkin.

Screenshot 2016-04-08 at 21.30.23.png

Basically, I really like squirrels, and so I was excited to read a novel so… so… squirrelly. The Portable Veblen was my sixth read Bailey’s Prize book, so this blog is a little late! But it still remains one of my favourites so far.

Veblen (named after famous philosopher Thorstein Veblen) is a young, scatty woman, who translates Norwegian as a hobby and talks to squirrels. At first I was a little worried she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but fear not past me (and future you), she is so much more. Veblen is strong but also fragile; she grew up with an overbearing mother and an emotionally distant father, both of whom have mental health problems that leave an imprint on Veblen. She tries hard, she sees good, she works against all odds for the happiness of others. She talks about anti-capitalism, consumerism, values beyond the American Dream.

Ultimately her story is about agreeing to marry her boyfriend, and trying to bring the strands of her family together. It sounds simplistic, but it is rich with insight on mental health, the meaning of family and how to be your own person under the weight of both of those. I found her very compelling as a character, and her quirks felt real. Her willingness to talk to squirrels begins as a childish retreat, but soon becomes a sign of something more troubling, like her habit of biting herself when under stress.

And then we have Paul, her partner. For context, I almost threw my book off a train because I hate him so much (Elizabeth McKenzie and the Bailey’s Prize comms team implored me not to, and my love of Veblen kept it in my hand). Paul is a neurologist developing a tool to stop brain injuries in combat situations, and rapidly becomes the interest of a pharmaceutical corporation. His aim is honourable and professionally he stands for what is good and right.

But, there is a big problem with Paul, and that’s his relationship with his brother. Like Veblen, Paul has a complicated relationship with his family, rebels against them like a teenage boy, very much all about Paul. Paul has a disabled brother, the name of his disability ultimately kept vague, but possibly a form of intellectual disability with compulsion issues. Paul and Justin fight like brothers, but also Paul physically and verbally abuses his brother. Paul repeatedly denies his brother agency, talks over his brother and not to him, ignores the love that Justin has for him. I find this to be the biggest problem in the novel, in that it instantly made me root for Veblen to throw Paul into a deep ravine. His ableism isn’t massively challenged and ultimately he and Veblen do get married, and so I felt he was rewarded for his professional good deeds by “getting the girl”.  I don’t think that being disabled is the reason why I find this so abhorrent, but the idea of someone hurting me when I’m at my most vulnerable is a fear that holds true. Also in the climate of the UK where disabled people are currently experiencing the government’s attempted financial genocide through the cutting of all benefits, it really felt painful.

I did really enjoy this book, but almost exclusively because of Veblen (and bad stuff happening to Paul, the big wazzock). On reflection I’m still frustrated by the ending for the way Justin is treated and still want to drop something heavy onto Paul. Despite that, I still really enjoyed the story and Elizabeth McKenzie’s writing. I am very much looking forward to reading more by her in the future, especially if the theme of having almost every language’s words for a particular animal continues!

Why should it win?

With The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie delicately weaves a funny and touching novel about mental health, philosophy, finding out who we are and learning how to love other people. Also, squirrels rock.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Harper Collins for sharing this copy with me.

The Bailey’s Book Prize: The Glorious Heresies

Content note for blog: whorephobia, sexual abuse, rape. There are also mild spoilers discussed (spoiler note in bold below).

The book itself requires content warnings specifically for domestic violence, child sexual abuse/rape, drug and alcohol abuse, and whorephobia.

I’m going to preface this review by saying openly and honestly that I don’t think I would ever have picked this book up if it weren’t for the Bailey’s Prize. While I’m a wide ranging reader, gritty realism and crime novels are not really my fiction of choice – too much intensity, too much of home for me. By reading along with a fiction prize, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and I tell you, if I hadn’t have picked this up I would have really missed out. Let me tell you why.

Lisa McInerney’s first novel is a tour de force of comic noir, a tale of characters desperate striving against poverty in Cork. Partially grown from her  (sadly now defunct) award winning blog The Arse End of Ireland, The Glorious Heresies is a raw snapshot of many of Ireland’s forefront issues – the legacy of the Magdalene laundries, abortion rights or the lack thereof, drugs, and amateur gangsters. It is astonishingly rich in Irish life, and the reality of working class Ireland. I have become a monster and turned over page corners all the way through, noting important points, to the absolute dismay of my partner… I even broke the spine a little bit! Rich tapestry aside, McInerney’s prose twists, turns and jumps alternately beautiful-horrific.

Screenshot 2016-04-08 at 21.23.37.png

We begin with wild and wiry Maureen, who finds herself in trouble after fatally thwacking an intruder with a piece of religious iconography. Enter her son, Jimmy Phelan or “J.P.”, Cork’s underground gangster-King, who ropes in hapless alcoholic Tony Cusack to help him dispose of the body. All well and good, until the dead man’s girlfriend, sex worker Georgie, comes knocking. Mixed up in all of this is Tony’s oldest son Ryan, intelligent beyond his peers, a natural musician, deeply in the throes of first love and selling drugs on the side. And finally, sneaking around in the background, is the treacherous Tara Duane *shudders*.

I found Ryan’s story the most gripping and desperately sad. Beaten by his father, too-clever, swept up by drugs – it’s a story I’ve seen play out in my own life time. He is witty to a fault, and absolutely besotted by Karine D’Arcy. The story of their romance begins with the heady heights of teenage love, all passion and all sex. But sadly for Ryan, things just get worse for him as the book progresses. <Spoilers>: Most notably, McInerney tells the story of his underage intoxicated rape by Tara Duane with delicacy, and deftly shows how survival of sexual abuse (as well as the domestic violence he receives at the hands of his father) changes him, infiltrates his psyche, convinces him that he did wrong. Rarely do novels (or the media) tell the story of women raping men, a crime that stigma has repeatedly suggested is impossible but is very much real and needs to be talked about, and this novel braces that with harsh reality and deep understanding. A huge content note for rape for the chapter What Tara Did on page 356 of the paperback edition

Another rarity featured is a sex worker character with agency, however she does fall into several sex worker character tropes that include being a drug addict, and being rescued by Christians. Georgie has roots in Jimmy’s side businesses that existed in Maureen’s house, buys drugs from Ryan, spurns Tara Duane’s false desire to rescue her and just wants to find her boyfriend, weaving all the characters together firmly. She’s an important character and I sympathised with her a lot, finding her story compellingly tragic. However, and this is quite a big however, there is a line on page 38 of the paperback edition that nearly had me stop reading the book as it does not come from a character’s mouth (where some of the more horrible lines usually emanate from) but in the prose – “When Georgie had worked indoors, there hadn’t been a shortage of inlets for numbing substances, all but essential when you were fucked for a living.” So, I don’t know Lisa McInerney’s politics, and I’m not entirely sure whether this was supposed to be an extension of George’s thoughts or the general attitude in the brothel, but this line did shock me.

I think what is further demonstrated in this book is the damage that Ireland’s stance on sex work and brothel keeping (i.e. two or more sex workers working together is criminalised, meaning they are pushed further underground) has on Georgie, and many real life sex workers in Ireland – to find out more visit Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. For an amazing 101 on sex work, please watch this amazing Ted Talk by Toni Mac.

It is only in the last 50 pages that the chapters begin with “What [x-character] did” where many of the significant plot points are tied up, which I absolutely raced through it. The Glorious Heresies does not ever pull its punches – it is a harsh yet rich book. I often had to put it down just to recover!

Why should it win?

The Glorious Heresies is gritty, raw and honest, finding roots in its author’s biographical writing about the city of Cork. The novel tackles difficult subjects and Ireland’s current issues with care, while sending jab after jab at the characters and the reader.

Interested? Get it here.

Thanks so much to John Murray for sweetly sending a copy over to me.

The Bailey’s Book Reviews: Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

Deja vu is a funny thing. That sense of repetition, unmistakable sameness. When I began reading Gorsky, I began to feel it completely.

At first I thought hey, maybe it’s because Nik is a bookseller. I carried on. Gorsky arrived in his magnificence, Natalia entered the narrative as a beautiful, intelligent and sad presence in Nik’s fantasy-romance. Still it seemed all a bit familiar. I chalked it up to having read something similar in the past. Then Natalia’s friend Gery shows up, a former gymnast who is immediately set up with Nik by Natalia, and I realised that I was reading The Great Gatsby. Or at least, The Great Gorsky.

Screenshot 2016-03-28 at 22.04.03

I decided to give the book the benefit of the doubt, and continue reading – so often, reviews will spoil the endings and while I wanted to know whether this really was a purposeful retelling or awkward accident, I figured I’d wait until the end. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. Knowing it was a retelling from the outset would have removed that aching nag that this was too close to comfort, or that perhaps I had officially read too many books.

When Baz Luhrman decided to make the lavish tale of The Great Gatsby into a movie, many of us were swept into a Fitzgerald fever. As an obsessive collector of sets, I bought many of the beautiful art deco Fitzgeralds published by Alma Books and ploughed through the majority of his novels. While I do not believe him to be a master storyteller, nor Gatsby the best novel ever, I did enjoy it and have a soft spot for his penchant for restless, drunken, rich young men persuing complex women who cannot love them.

Maybe this is why I can’t quite understand why this book exists… I hate that I feel this way about a piece of art, which I thoroughly believe has intrinsic worth of its own, but I’m just a little at a loss when it comes to retellings. I think my problem is that I can’t see where it fits to me in the long term, and how I feel that it would have so many more strengths had it followed an original plot.

This is not to say that it is a bad book. It is not. Goldsworthy delves deeply into a London of extreme wealth, touches upon interesting (and brutal) moments in Eastern European and Russian history, and has some absolutely beautiful moments of prose. It also provides a great list of Russian authors, poets and artists to investigate after the novel is over.

It did keep me reading and, partly due to its short length, I finished it relatively quickly. However I cannot completely give over that this was somewhat linked to being baffled by a reused plot. I am disappointed because these plus points are exactly what I’d love to read more of – and I would be fascinated to see what else Goldsworthy writes, or what she could have written other than this.

I suspect that this is partly an intrinsic bias I have against retellings and reimaginings; unless they significantly add something to the story, I’m not interested. Updating difficult-to-access texts such as the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare for a modern audience is something I’m all behind – whatever gets people interested in these great stories is a good thing. The problem is, I don’t think Gorsky really adds too much to Gatsby, and this retelling of the plot means that the characters often feel underdeveloped and wan. If I hadn’t have read Gatsby before, I suspect I may have thought them to be very flat and in fact its only because of what I know about who they are supposed to represent that they feel more fleshed out than they really are.

I really, really hate that I’ve given this such a blunt review but I wanted to be honest about what I was feeling and my frustrations with what could have been.

Thanks to Chatto & Windus, and Penguin Random House for sending over a review copy to the shop.

Why it should win

While probably my least favourite of the longlist so far, Gorsky is a beautiful story, with lavish descriptions and good pacing. Goldsworthy is a great writer, and I look forward to reading her other works.