Category Archives: Serpent’s Tail

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

9781781255445

Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

Pleasantville – Attica Locke

In the last 12 months I have become quite fascinated by American politics and law. No, not because of the whole Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump furore, the latter is frankly petrifying rather than fascinating. I have become somewhat addicted to political and legal drama’s such as House of Cards (which I am waiting to watch season four of until I have completed all of my Bailey’s longlist read, of which this novel is one), Damages ad current obsession The Good Wife, which I am limiting myself to two episodes of a night. Occasionally three because season five is so, so good. Anyway… I have now found a novel that brings all that televisual love into my literary landscape, Attica Locke’s third novel Pleasantville.

9781846689499

Serpent’s Tail Books, 2016, paperback, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

I am going to do something that I do not do very often, and I am slightly embarrassed by. I am going to borrow the back of the blurb so I can give you a synopsis of the book. This is not something I normally do on blog posts as I don’t like it however I think that the blurb will sum up the start of the novel far better than I will as it is quite a complex set up, which Attica Locke (and whoever wrote the blurb) make seem so effortless but have defied me five times so far, so here it is…

It’s 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville — the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. Axel Hathorne, former chief of police and the son of Pleasantville’s founding father Sam Hathorne, was the clear favourite, all set to become Houston’s first black mayor. But his lead is slipping thanks to a late entrant into the race — Sandy Wolcott, a defence attorney riding high on the success of a high-profile murder trial. And then, just as the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for Axel. And when her body is found, Axel’s nephew is charged with her murder. Sam is determined that Jay Porter defends his grandson. And even though Jay is tired of wading through other people’s problems, he suddenly finds himself trying his first murder case, a trial that threatens to blow the entire community wide open, and reveal the lengths that those with power are willing to go to hold onto it.

You see that makes it sound so less complex than it is, not in a ‘difficult to read’ way more a ‘there is so much going on’ way, and almost lessens the power of what Attica Locke does which is to create a completely gripping thriller that twists politics, law, murder, domestic drama and a take (because it is fictional set around some factual) on recent African-American issues and history. She makes all of this poignant and gripping whilst also adding a sprinkling of the great noir novels gone before as well as the great crime classics. We meet unlikely private detective, shady politicians, dodgy business men and women, ruthless hacks and half arsed police officers as well as getting introduced to small subplots that may mean more than we think.

“Look,” the cop says. “Officer McFee and I have no problem amending the initial report, Mr. Porter, adding in your description of the intruder and the bit about the misplaced glass.” He delivers that last part as f he were describing the plot of an Agatha Christie novel. This isn’t a murder mystery, he wants it known, just a simple case of breaking and entering, one of thirty or forty on a given night in the city of Houston, depending on the weather.”But I will also add words to support my opinion, based on ten years on the force, that I did not see evidence of an intruder in your place of business at the time my partner and I were present.”

At the same time as making this all a gripping murder investigation, intriguing political election and then fast paced courtroom drama, which would be enough in itself, there is another layer to Pleasantville and that is the story of a man dealing with a dip in his career and a home life tinged with grief and recent single parenthood after the loss of his wife. Jay Porter is a brilliant character both in the story surrounding him for the reader but also all that he stands for. Many thrillers will take the same old, same old hard done by divorcee who numbs the pain with drink. Jay numbs the pain by wanting to do what is best for his clients, what is best for Pleasantville and what is best for Houston. He’s not a cop with a grudge, he is a solicitor with a heart who is bloody good at what he does. He is a role model, almost a nod to Atticus Finch in there somewhere, well in his To Kill A Mockingbird guise at least. His home life becomes as much a part of the story, plot, pace and drama as his work life and I liked that a lot.

If I am making this all sound a little too dark or noir, there is also a great sense of humour in the novel. To me it really felt that Attica Locke is writing books about things she feels are important, like the law, African-American issues and politics, but also having fun whilst writing it and wanting the reader to do the same. After all which is more affective, a book with a sense of humour as well as a sense of worth (without being worthy just to add) or a book which takes itself and its issues far too seriously.

The Harris County District Civil Court has long set, by its own bylaws, an ancillary judge, a name assigned and rotated every two weeks, to handle emergency motions, and Judge Irwin Little, through no choice of his own, got this one. A “doozy”, he calls it from the bench. He leans his pudgy torso all the way back in his leather chair, resting his hands on the mound of belly beneath his black robe, waiting to be entertained.

Like Judge Irwin Little, I wanted to be entertained, I got the complete opposite of a “doozy” with Pleasantville though. Admittedly I read thrillers to escape, however as much as I  like them to pack a punch with plot a thriller will get me all the more if there are additional layers to them too. Not that I don’t enjoy a simple cosy, or indeed grisly, throwaway crime novel from time to time. Oh, you know what I mean, a literary thriller will get my brain tingling and ignited whilst at the same time have me routed to my sofa avoiding the real world. This is such a novel. Pleasantville has all the escapism you want with a sense of reality that makes you think and want to go and find out more. I will certainly be reading more Attica Locke, I will soon be somewhat shamefacedly be dusting off the copy of Black Water Rising which has been on my shelves since it was published. It appears I have committed a true reading injustice right there.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Serpent's Tail

After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry

Some books are rather tricky to read and therefore tricky to write about. Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was the first book I read when I returned from America and I have to say at first I thought was the worst possible choice of book to read whilst in the throes of jetlag. Now Sarah, on the off chance you have popped by, don’t fret because once I realised that it wasn’t the jet lag (or that it was me being a bit thick) and that you cleverly, and trickily, wanted me to feel rather thrown and confused initially. Yet I soon got enveloped in a wonderful and often tricky (have I mentioned the tricky factor yet or mentioned the word tricky so many times its gone weird) dark and unsettling gothic world somewhere on the Norfolk coast.

Serpent’s Tail Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If you decided, after being sick to death of a seemingly never ending heat wave in London, that you would go and take a trip to visit a family member before breaking down in a wood and then finding a house where a bunch of strangers are waiting for you to turn up, you might think something really weird was going on. This is the case for John Cole, a bookseller who, after a thirty five day drought of rain and indeed customers in his bookshop, finds himself in this very predicament. Why would people that he has never met be waiting for him? Is there more to it than merely just some strange coincidence?

John is naturally wondering just what the funk is going on, feeling both saved and yet, quite naturally, completely disorientated and confused. We too as the reader are instantly thrown into a world where we feel that the rug has been pulled from under us and can’t work it out either. I have to admit I was feeling rather confused and cross at first, yet Sarah’s wonderful writing and the mystery of what was going on with this strange cast of characters and why they new John kept me reading – then the penny dropped. It wasn’t the book that was confusing, John was confused and bothered and through his narrative so was I. Clever. Tricky. A risk. Yet one that pays off if you let it just take over you and go with it.

‘I know. And I don’t know which would be worst. Isn’t it odd,’ she said, smiling: ‘You turned up and I never for a minute thought it might be you, though even as strangers go, you’re fairly strange.’ Much later John was to remember that phrase, and wonder why it had felt so like an unexpected touch on the arm. Pressing her hands against the dip in her spine and turning her face to the sun she said, ‘Let’s not talk about it anymore.’ Then she ran to peer at the shadow on the broken sundial, swore beneath her breath, and vanished into the cool dark house. Clare stood, examining a bitten-down thumbnail, while the sound of a piano played in intricate swift patterns reached them across the lawn.
‘How did she know the time,’ said John, when the sundial’s broken?’

I mentioned that it is the intrigue that carries you through the initial confusion. There is of course the mystery of how on earth these characters know, or think they know, John. There is also the question of why he allows them to go on thinking this and what will happen should they realise he might not be who they think, if he isn’t who they think. There is also the mystery of the characters that have come together in this crumbling old mansion, which is often a character in its own right.  We have head of the house, the unnervingly ugly yet motherly Hester who is clearly in charge; a former preacher named Elijah who has pages from the bible all over his walls; the beautiful yet cold Eve; the childlike (to the point of dim) Claire and her brother Alex who everyone is concerned about and a man named Walker, who stays aloof. Why have this group of strangers come together when they have no family ties, how do they know each other, what ties them together? It gets stranger and more mysterious as it goes on. Oh and there is the question of what on earth Eadwacer is? I will say no more because one of the wonders of this book is how it unwinds and unravels slowly but surely revealing all.

If I can’t say much more about the plot, what else can I say about the book? Well, Perry’s writing is rather wonderful. It takes a very accomplished author to write a book that is so strange, other and confusing at times you almost throw the book across the room, almost, never quite. The strangeness and confusion give it a rather beguiling nature which, along with the aforementioned characters and mystery, carries you on through. There is also the wonderful way in which Sarah Perry plays with words, often flipping them on their own meaning, how strange can a stranger be; can a stranger get stranger and stranger for example. There is a love of words and what they can do which shines through in the text which gives a playful nature to the book and can make an oppressive moment seem like a funny one and vice versa.

The gull padded scowling towards him and screamed again. The sound startled the pair inside the glasshouse – another of the windows flew open and a small white pebble was flung out. It startled the gull, which gave a weary thrust of its wings, shot John and aggrieved glare, and wheeled away towards the reservoir where Alex and Clare lay unmoving on the bright grass of the embankment, It found a rising current of hot air, and rode it out of sight.
‘Do you remember being a child and drawing birds so they made the letter M?’ said Eve, watching it go and bringing her tilted head against Walker’s shoulder. ‘And every house had a chimney, and the sky was a blue stripe with nothing between it and the green earth.’

There is also a wonderful duality to the novel which I really enjoyed. After Me Comes The Flood feels like it is set in the past, with its almost Victorian gothic atmosphere, and yet could easily be set in the future when global warming is rife. The book also has both a sense of nostalgic innocence and a knowing darkness. Sometimes is it maddeningly mysterious, other times thrillingly so. There is also a real sadness etched within its pages, yet it is also very funny, sometimes quite darkly and inappropriately so.

After Me Comes The Flood is a book that I would call brilliantly confusing and compelling. Oh and of course tricky, both in it playing joyful and dark tricks with its reader, though now I have used that word so much it does indeed seem wrong so maybe quirky is better. It is also incredibly original, whilst having nods and winks to literature from the past. It is a book which is both maddeningly and thrillingly strange and will require you to stop trying to rationalise everything and just go with it. Some people might be put off by this and that is their loss, I interestingly wanted to start it all over again when I had finished and think it could be one of those books you read every few years and get something completely different from. It is a fantastic example of a modern gothic novel and I am very excited about what Sarah might just do next, though I guess I should already be expecting something quite unexpected, which is very exciting.

Who else has read After Me Comes The Flood and what did you make of it? Which books have you read that have really thrown you off kilter initially before becoming brilliant and quirky tales you will never forget and even go back to?

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Filed under Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

Sometimes you try a book and it can seem a little too dense at the time, you know there is something marvellous in there but the timing isn’t right, so you put the read ‘on hold’. These aren’t books that you give up on and leave, you save them for some unknown time in the future. ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan was one such book for me and so when we were choosing titles for The Readers Summer Book Club I pushed this title, not thinking that Esi (having won so many awards) would say yes, but she did, and so it was time to try it again.

Serpents Tail Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

What really happened to Hieronymus Falk, a young black jazz musician full of talent who was arrested by the Nazi’s in 1940? This is the question at the heart of Esi Edugyan’s second novel. Yet, told through the narrative of one of Hieronymus’ friends – or Hiero/’The Kid’ as we learn to call him – retired ex-jazz musician Sidney Griffiths (which rings all the more authentic by the style as you will see below) we also have a tale of friendship, jealousy, love, race and war – quite a powerful combination.

The mystery of what happened to Hiero is really only part of the driving force. As Sid tells us of his time in a jazz band with Hiero and Sid’s long term friend-cum- enemy, dependent on mood and situation, Chip, Paul and Fritz we realise that Sid has been living with the secret of his possible involvement in what happened to Hiero. We also watch as jealousies arise around talent and women, when the enigmatic and rather elusive Delilah comes upon the scene.

I thought that mixing the strands of tensions between Sid and Chip as well as Sid and Heiro was, for me, one of the greatest successes of the book. Be a friendship new or old, if you have it for a long time at close range, regardless of the brink of war at any point, tensions will arise and Edugyan creates these brilliantly, especially when a very famous musician comes to town. Being a group of black men there is also the tension outside of the group, the rise and fall of jazz also seems to occur with the rise of the Aryan ideal in Germany and the fall of the Jews.

“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damned fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing the vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of the master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.”

I have to admit that I had no real knowledge of what happened to black people in either of the World Wars or the time between them. This sounds horribly ignorant I know yet at school we were very much taught about the Nazi and Jew divide and how Britain and France joined forces to combat it. Edugyan opened my eyes, through her fictional version of events, to some of the horrors that I had no clue of. I found this grimly fascinating and also extremely important. I have often said, and I don’t mean this in an offensive way, that I am bored of WWII books. Here with ‘Half Blood Blues’ Esi Edugyan gives us something really different and a completely new insight into that period in history.

The other successful part of the book are also the atmosphere of the book as we move from America in Chip and Sibs childhood to both Berlin and Paris in the 1930s/40s and even the recent past as the books shifts in chronological order. You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unravelling and war drawing nearer does give the book a slight thriller twist. If you think that is a negative thing it is not I promise you because Edugyan merges the literary elements of the novel with the tension and pace perfectly.

“Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line. When we walked them cobblestones, we seen families huddled in their apartments, crouched over the wireless. Waiters was bent over counters, listening to static. Hell, in those first tender days it seem like everyone was hunched on up over some radio somewhere, it ain’t mattered where, staying put, like if they moved they might miss the war.”

What really sold the book overall to me was the ending, which of course I won’t give away as you need to read this book if you haven’t already, and how we get to it. I cannot think of a recent book where the author has so firmly and rather alarmingly emotionally and just in terms of storyline, thrown me by pulling the rug from under my feet. Emotional twist after emotional twist comes and it is all the more powerful because the build up Edugyan has created has been so expertly drawn out, I did struggle in the middle a little with so much story and scene setting yet at the end I knew why. What connects all the most successful elements of the book is Esi Edugyan’s of course her prose which is wonderful. I don’t know if you can tell but I really thought this book was rather incredible in so many ways.

The premise of Esi Edugyan’s second novel ‘Half Blood Blues’ might not instantly sound like a book you might want to read being the tale of a group of jazz musicians in the days leading up, and indeed the start of, World War II. It was something that would have put me off if I hadn’t heard so many rave reviews about it here there and everywhere and seen it get listed for pretty much every award it is eligible for. However do believe the praise (which I am now happily adding to) as Edugyan delivers a novel that is brimming with atmosphere, is hauntingly written and will really move you (this book, clichéd as it sounds, really kicked me in the emotional guts) and it stays with you long after you read it. I am late to this book; don’t let yourself be though as it is a truly marvellous read and one I am glad I returned to at just the right time.

As I mentioned above, I read this finally because of The Readers Summer Book Club which it was the first of the selection of. You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing the author and discussing the book with special guests here.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Esi Edugyan, Review, Serpent's Tail, The Readers Summer Book Club

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin

A while back I wrote about my thoughts on debut novels and the fact that I don’t tend to run out and buy them. Well imagine my surprise that during my Orange Longlist reading it’s the debuts on the whole that have really shone out for me, no wonder there were so many (nine out of twenty) on the list. ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ by Lola Shoneyin is one of these debuts. I hadn’t heard of it before the longlist was announced but if I had been browsing in a bookshop and seen the cover and read the title (which is one of my favourites of the year so far) and blurb I think it’s a book I’d have walked away with, and if you see it in your local book shop you should get it sharpish too.

In the roughly modern day we meet Nigerian businessman Baba Segi during a chronic stomach ache. He believes the cause of his problem is down to the fact that his most recent wife Bolanle does not appear to be able to carry a child. When I say recent I do not mean that Baba Segi is a rich divorcee, for the household of Baba Segi is a polygamous one and Bolanle is in fact his fourth wife, one which the other three were not happy to see enter the house. More wives equals less time with their husband, and with every new wife comes the threat that their lives could change forever as each previous wife has a secret and there is also one big secret running through the whole family. What the hostile three don’t realise is that Bolanle has secrets too.

What of course these secrets are I shall keep to myself, because as I read a long I had no idea what was coming and that made the book really enjoyable as a first time read. I have to say that I could happily read it all over again knowing everything as I now do because of the wonderful, and the wicked, characters that appear in the book. Despite the fact you might not like them all, Baba Segi is a bit of a pig really, I think some might find that a mild accusation, and the first wife Iya Segi and third wife Iya Femi aren’t two of the nicest ladies though as you read on you learn why they are the way they are and how they ended up as one of Baba Segi’s wives. Dare I say the more you read to them and discover their desperation the more you understand them?

I think one of the most clever aspects of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ is that the novel is told in over six or seven narratives and the third person, the latter which fills in the gaps on and off. This could have been a risk because any book where you have more than three or four voices, which doesn’t happen that often, can become confusing. This is not the case in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel. Every voice is totally different and within a line or two you can tell just which wife is talking as their narratives are so individual and distinctive and it is the women’s voices, as Baba Segi only gets a chapter or two in first person and his driver one, that could have all sounded rather samey.

The other great aspect of the novel is the way that Shoneyin captures Nigeria. Through the wives and how they go about their lives in the present and let the reader into their pasts we glimpse all aspects, and walks of life, in Nigeria over the past few decades. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading (these wives are hiding things after all) but its very thought provoking and yet written in, and I don’t use this term very often as I think it’s a bit of a cliché but in this case is true, a very compassionate tone.

I loved ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ from the very first chapter. It is a book which manages to say a heck of a lot in fewer than 250 pages, it is brimming with characters, will make you angry, laugh (especially when the women discuss Baba Segi’s anatomy), gasp and possibly cry in equal measure, and is simply a book that you really need to read if you haven’t already. I will definitely read whatever Lola Shoneyin writes next, I hope there are many books to come from her. 9.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is the last review of any Orange longlisted novels before the big announcement of the short list tomorrow. At the time this post was scheduled (with my health and hospital visits scheduling is proving most useful) I had half a book left from the longlist to finish so will be guessing tomorrow though I can tell you in advance of that I have everything crossed for Lola Shoneyin and the four wives of Baba Segi’s as its just a wonderful read. Which books are you hoping make the short list? I find it really exciting and promising so many of the debut novels on the list have been excellent, what excellent debut have you read recently? Who else has read ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Lola Shoneyin, Orange Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

Repeat It Today With Tears – Anne Peile

I wasn’t too sure how I would deal with reading ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ by Anne Peile when I found out that the main plot of the story would be incest. Something about the very idea of it made me feel rather uncomfortable before even opening the first page. It’s odd I had this reaction because I am the first to say that I do think that reading shouldn’t always be a comfortable experience and so bearing that in mind I opened the pages and started it. I am glad that I risked the subject matter because, whilst uncomfortable, Anne Peile’s debut novel is very accomplished and holds much promise for her future works.

Susanna, the main protagonist of ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’, is a rather quiet and subdued young woman. Growing up with an overbearing mother, rebellious sister who her grandmother much prefers over Susanna and lets her know as much, the one thing missing from her life is her father who we learn left when Susanna was very young. What starts off as general inquisitiveness soon becomes an obsession that leads to a rather dark opening of the book from the first line. “The first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the Easter holiday.” From the very start we know we are in rather unchartered territory and from here on Anne Peile takes us on a rather a dark journey of Susanna from that point, whilst also taking us through her past.

I am sure many people will be put off the book, as I admit I was a little, from the subject this book brings up. Yet I have to say Anne Peile writes fantastically and really gets into the mindset of her leading character. In many ways it makes the story all the darker that a girl who you start of thinking is rather innocent and lost becomes more and more deceitful and manipulative as the book goes on, for her father has no clue that the woman he is having an affair with, behind his wife Olive’s back, is his own flesh and blood. You know from the very start of the book this is dark territory and as the book goes on things get worse and worse.

Despite its generally dark tone there is, interestingly enough, also great humour in this book. The people that Susanna meets once she starts to work in 1970’s Chelsea are a mixed bunch of ‘free loving’ spirits, and the women in her home territory of Clapham and the gossip and foul mouthed tittle-tattle they come out with is hilarious. It nicely adds a sense of place and atmosphere in the book, whilst breaking up the darkness with some light and often saucy blunt relief.

‘Here it comes.’ The bench women were nodding at a younger woman who was entering, pulling her wash behind her in a basket on wheels. Her heels tapped on the mosaic and her newly dressed hair was swept back and lacquered into curls. She eyed the seated women critically for a moment and then said to one, ‘Blimey, close your legs, girl, your meats smelling.’
 The other women guffawed and the superintendent clicked her tongue in disapproval.
 Alison said, ‘They’re such dirty old bags in here, they make me sick. Come on, lets go and tap the phone instead while the wash is doing.’

‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ is a dark and tightly woven ‘coming of age’ tale with a huge twist and one that could lose it some of the audience that I think it deserves. It’s also a very hard book to write about because its short and not knowing what’s coming makes the pay off all the greater. It’s not always comfortable, it gets pretty bleak, and yet it’s written in such a way that you find yourself turning the pages, often despite yourself, up until the final word. It’s a very accomplished debut novel, with one of the best first narrative voices I have read for some time – even if she is a bit bonkers and rather unreliable, that I would recommend people give a try… just brace yourself a little first. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

The Orange long list is proving most fruitful (do you see what I did there) in pushing forward books that I would not necessarily have rushed to read. It’s also making me ask a lot of questions about my own reading habits and attitudes. Have you ever been put off by a book because of its subject matter, and if so which one? Has anyone else given ‘Repeat It Today With Tears’ a go, what did you think? Anyone now tempted on reading it at some point?

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Filed under Anne Peile, Orange Prize, Review, Serpent's Tail

King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes

It does seem that non fiction seems to be something that I can turn to when I having a bit of a problem with reading and ‘King Kong Theory’ which is a set of autobiographical essays by Virginie Despentes was just the thing I needed. Though I have to say it’s not for the faint hearted and you might not want to read my thoughts if you are offended by certain language as Virginie Despentes tells it how it is from the very first paragraph of the book… you have been warned.

“I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones; the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick. I’m making no excuses for myself. I’m not complaining. I would never swap places, because it seems to me that being Virginie Despentes is a more interesting business than anything else going on out there.”

Virginie Despentes became one of the most notorious women in France because of her rape-revenge novel, and then film, ‘Baise-Moi’ which I have neither read nor seen – though of course I now want to so I can see what all the fuss was about. In these essays, with titles such as ‘Your Arse or Mine’, ‘Porno Witches’ and ‘She’s So Depraved, You Can’t Rape Her’, she looks at the rape that she endured, her life in prostitution and pornography and how society today doesn’t allow feminists to be true feminists and what should change.

This isn’t a misery memoir and nor does it feel like a book written to shock and sell copies it does read as a true account of a rather notorious woman’s life told with a bluntness and candour that you cant help admiring whilst occasionally wincing at. Its also isn’t a book that is only for women to read, and in fact I would recommend a lot of men give this a go because of the openness of what’s discussed. Despentes isn’t a man hater despite all she has been through, she does look at how male dominated the world is.

“But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their ‘masculine’ urges, and understanding that ‘no’ means ‘no’. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night, and slit each of their throats, one by one. Instead of having to live with being someone who didn’t dare defend herself, because she’s a woman and violence is not her domain, and the physical integrity of the male body is more important than that of the female.”

It’s hard to say too much more on this book because it’s a short collection of 131 pages of essays and they really need to be read to be believed. If you’re a fan of feminist works then you might find this quite a new, emotionally honest and distinctive voice filled with sadness, anger and courage. Its quite something and it’s a book that will make you uncomfortable and yet change your thoughts about the world all in one and books like that make important reads. 8/10

I was sent this book from the publisher.

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Filed under Review, Serpent's Tail, Virginie Despentes