The best novel I’ve read this year?

Yes, I do, I really do think that Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor might just be the best novel I’ve  read so far this year – which is a longer time and more books than you might expect. It has just come out here but I read an advance copy back in January and nothing else has stacked up since… I have been waiting for it to appear so I can share it. It is quite amazing, the slow, beautiful telling of many lives in a small town nestled in a landscape in which, one day, a young girl disappears.

It begins on the day of her disappearance, and explores how life nevertheless just goes on. Animals still need tending, trolley loads of groceries need to be bought and cooked, school years wax and wane, people marry, die, are born, are hateful to each other, experience moments of quiet grace and hope. Leaves fall from trees, foxes have many litters, badgers do violent things to hedgehogs, the earth keeps turning and the girl is still disappeared.

The writing is so very beautiful, the observations of precious everyday lives so acute and meaningful you are pulled into the small dramas and important details that such lives are made up of, and then you remember: but a girl disappeared. What happened to her? who knows what? and then the leaves are falling again and the family down the road is splitting up and it is time for the carol singers to get organised, the leafhoppers are hibernating and dear life asserts itself again…

Read this – you need to, really, and I am sure you will love it.

 

Captivating twists and turns…

There are quite a few in Sarah Perry’s new novel The Essex Serpent which is being described as Dickens meets Stoker. It is a clever read, refreshing and unexpected and very satisfying.

In 1669, a pamphlet was published in Saffron Waldon. Strange News out of Essex or pamphlet_2The Winged Serpent informed the horrified public that a beast, wettish, serpentish, deathly – and with wings! – was on the prowl in the soggy and mysterious Essex marshlands. The pamphlet was re-printed in the late nineteenth-century by Robert MiIller Christie, when the snakey creature was once more rumoured to be abroad.
Truely. You can see the pages in the Saffron Walden Museum.

Starting her story in 1893, Sarah Perry sends her unusual heroine, her odd child and his socialist-activist nanny off to Essex to chase the beastie, after quickly dispatching her ill husband in the first couple of chapters. Cora is frankly relieved that he is dead (there are enough darkly alluded to sadistic and nasty moments between them that we are quite pleased too), and being a modern woman of enquiring mind, excited by the new ideas of Darwin and the discoveries of fossils on the English coasts, she is determined to see whether the animal is perhaps a living fossil, perhaps an ichthyosaur, or just a folktale frightening benighted marsh-dwelling peasants. There is a brilliant, envelope-pushing surgeon, in thrall to her since he was doctoring her husband and his wealthy doctor friend who fancies the socialist nanny and tries to impress her by crusading against London’s noisome slums. There is a fun member of parliament and his wife who introduce Cora to an Essex vicar and his fairy-like wife, and their charming children, who are all trying to live in a world threatened by both serpents and science.

There is lots of love, perhaps the most touching between the two medical friends, who support each other through thick and thin, a touch of desire and much sparkling playing with ideas and clever talk.The ending is not what you expect yet it is exactly right. Cora is great: charming, intelligent, fierce and real. Her son is unusual and fascinating. I do hope that there is a sequel sometime, I’d really like to see what happens to everyone.
It was lovely to read, it felt quite unusual and special, and it has the most beautiful cover, you can feel the embossed scales under your fingertips as you read…
Essex Serpent

 

 

A spooky twin tale…

Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself is a very well-written, more than a little horrifying, spooky tale of a pair of twins, Helen and Ellie, who, one day in childhood, swap identities – as you do, if you are identical and mischievous. Helen is the outgoing, vivacious leader while quieter Ellie is the follower. At the end of the day, Ellie/Helen refuses to become Ellie again and denies that Helen/Ellie is really Helen. Everyone believes Ellie/Helen, who becomes Helen, and not only gets all Helen’s clothes and toys but all Helen’s relationships with her friends, teachers and mother. Particularly cruelly, Ellie/Helen denies utterly even when they are alone that Helen/Ellie ever was, let alone is, Helen.

Helen’s insistence that she is in fact Helen and not Ellie leads to her branding as a trouble-maker and liar, as disturbed and malicious. Twenty-five years later ‘Smudge’ is estranged from her family,  her life and mind in barely held-together bits, when a phone call threatens to pull her back into the orbit of her sister, Helen-who-was-Ellie. This is a clever and compulsive psychological thriller,  weaving questions about cause and effect into Helen’s story of disintegration: is her precarious mental state only a result of her sad and shattering life (in the circumstances, her state seems like a completely reasonable response to the stealing of her identity) or is there another family history playing out?

Nathan Filer, who wrote the unforgettable The Shock of the Fall, reviewed here back in 2013, has heaped praise on Beside Myself, and it is well deserved, a riveting exploration of losing one’s sense of self and attempting to live anyway. I found myself really curious about Helen-who-was-Ellie, and why she did what she did – the answers are surprising and heart-breaking but you cheer for Smudge as she gropes towards a new life. Utterly absorbing, this one will frighten you…

Beside