‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry ***

I was given a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent for Christmas, and came to it with rather high hopes, as I know that a lot of fellow readers have adored it.  It was chosen as the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016, and has also been selected for innumerable ‘best of’ lists.  I was rather underwhelmed with Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood; I will be posting my archived review of this tome tomorrow.

9781781255452The Essex Serpent begins in London in 1893.  Cora Seaborne has been recently widowed, and decides to move to Colchester in Essex with her young son, ‘black-haired, silent’ Francis.  She hears rumours almost as soon as she has relocated about ‘the Essex serpent’, a creature of local folklore which has been said to have returned to roam the marshes.  The serpent is described as ‘a great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’  After some time, Cora decides to set off upon the serpent’s trail.  This is only one thread of the novel; it is set at a time of great change, and Perry effectively contrasts Cora’s love of science, and the scientific advances of the age, with a local vicar named William Ransome, who is focused wholly upon his faith.  The blurb says that the novel is, ‘above all, a celebration of love in all its incarnations, and of what we share even when we disagree.’

The historical settings come to life from the beginning, and were, for me, a real strength of the novel.  In her opening chapter, which begins on New Year’s Eve, Perry writes: ‘One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory.  There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames.  Skippers marked the time and tide…  Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand.’  Had this thread of the passing of time been included throughout the novel, I feel as though it would have drawn the whole together; rather, whilst beautifully written, and certainly effective at evoking the scene, it feel as though this prologue was separate from the rest of the novel.  The quality of Perry’s writing, in my opinion, was inconsistent; it felt very polished in the prologue, and in selected chapters later on, but due to the pace of the novel proper, it was plodding in other places.  The prose on its own was often lovely, but there was a strange density to it, and I did not find The Essex Serpent a very easy book either to read, or to immerse myself within, in consequence.

Perry did capture Cora’s new position in life, and the complexity of feeling which struck her when her abusive husband, Michael, died: ‘The sensation was decently suppressed, but all the same she could name it: it was not happiness, precisely, nor even contentment, but relief.  There was grief, too, that was certain, and she was grateful for it, since however loathed he’d been by the end, he’d formed her, at least in part – and what good ever came of self-loathing?’  Of his father’s death, Francis’ feelings are rather less predictable: ‘That his father had died struck him as a calamity, but one no worse than the loss of one of his treasures the day before (a pigeon’s feather, quite ordinary, but which could be coiled into a perfect circle without snapping its spine).’

Natural history as an element has been used very well within The Essex Serpent, and this was one of my favourite parts of the book, snaking, as it did, in and out of various chapters.  The characters were problematic, however; Cora is the main focus of the novel, but I do not feel as though I knew her satisfactorily come the end.  No single character within The Essex Serpent feels wholly realistic; for me, Francis and his behaviour would have been a much more interesting focus had it been elaborated upon more often.

Whilst I liked the core idea, and am fascinated with the period of history which Perry has focused upon, I found The Essex Serpent to be rather a slow-going novel.  I did not feel as though the whole came together satisfactorily, certainly not as well as it could have had certain plotlines been tightened up slightly, or focused upon a little more.  I felt something of a detachment toward the characters, and the entire novel did not feel as though it was quite a consistent work; for me, the prologue and end chapters held a lot more promise than the rest of the novel.  Whilst I admire the way in which Perry has completely embraced Victoriana, and has reflected the literature of the period in stylising her own sentences, The Essex Serpent did not read as fluently or fluidly as it could have done.

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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland’ by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood ****

First published in July 2012.

Folklore is still inherently entrenched into life in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in a vast number of countries and communities on an international scale. The introduction of The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland states that ‘… the coastline of the British Isles plays host to an astonishingly rich variety of local legends, customs and superstitions’, all of which the authors have tried to incorporate into the book. Their main aim, they tell the reader, is to ‘examine the facts behind the legends’.

The introduction, both far-reaching and well-written, describes how such legends came to be. The traditions of storytelling are outlined and then elaborated upon, and instances of the earliest recorded folklore of the sea have been included. Many historical figures also feature on many of the book’s pages, ranging from Sir Francis Drake to Grace O’Malley, ‘the sixteenth-century pirate queen of Connaught’.

The book is split into a variety of different sections, all of which encompass different counties and districts around the Britain and Ireland. These range from Wales and the Scottish Lowlands to Southern Eire and East Anglia. Every stretch of coastline has been included, as have the majority of the islands which are dotted around our shores. ‘Legends flourish in these borders between land and sea,’ we are told, and such places provide ‘a setting for some of the most beautiful, terrible, and memorable tales of folklore’.

Maps have been included at the start of each section in order to pinpoint the exact areas which the following text refers to. In each separate section, a host of different places have been incorporated, along with the legends, lore and tales which are believed to have originated in them. All are in alphabetical order, hence why the first section on ‘South-West England & Channel Islands’ deals with Abbotsbury, Bideford, Bodmin and Boscastle, and the ‘North-East England’ section ends with entries about Skinningrove, Staithes, Whitby and York.

The legends and folklore which the authors have included have been taken from almost every period in the history of Britain and Ireland, and the stories which are so wonderfully evoked are both ancient and modern. These range from a tale originating in seventeenth-century Bristol regarding a ship believed to have been ‘infested with witches’, to the unexplained phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire in Norfolk; from Mrs Leakey, the whistling ghost of Minehead, to the legend of King Arthur’s sword; and from the tale of how the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland came to be, to the ‘drowned city’ of Dunwich in Suffolk. These stories, ranging from the amusing to the chilling, are incredibly well-balanced, and great care has been taken to ensure that no two similar events have been included. References are made to similar tales occurring in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is an ingrained sense of astuteness on the part of the authors throughout to make certain that each tale can be viewed with the fresh eyes of the reader.

Not just legends and folklore people this volume. Double paged spreads dotted throughout reveal what we know and believe about such stories as Atlantis, the Flying Dutchman and smugglers and wreckers, as well as pages which explain the origins of figureheads and the naming of ships. Events of historical significance, findings from various archaeological digs, mythical creatures and the influence of sea gods upon ancient communities are all woven into the book, creating rather an astoundingly multi-layered volume. Various primary and secondary sources are referenced and quoted throughout the book, and the bibliography and list of references are both impressive in their scale in consequence.

The Fabled Coast is wonderfully set out. The headings are bold and the typeface throughout is consistent. Two sections of glossy pictures can be found in the book, most of which are in colour. A whole host of black and white illustrations have also been placed next to the appropriate text throughout, adding a wealth of information to the stories they relate to.

Kingshill and Westwood’s book is a rich and far-reaching account, filled with exquisite historical detail. A lot of work has clearly been put into the volume and it is meticulous in its detail. The Fabled Coast is a must-read for anyone interested in folklore, the origins of British traditions and superstitions, or merely as our heritage as a nation. It is perhaps not a volume to read all in one go (as this reviewer did), but one to dip into here and there. Such a book is an incredible achievement, a vast collection of folklore and tradition which deserves to reach an extremely wide readership.

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