Brain on Fire- Susannah Cahalan

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A month of being somebody else. A month of confusion. A month of paranoia.

It might sound like the premise for a murder mystery involving stolen identity, however when renowned journalist, Cahalan, was overtaken with a mysterious illness, that is precisely what ensued. It started with seizures, rapidly, suddenly, then strange fleeting moments of outer-body experiences, thrilling highs and bursts of tears. Nobody understood what was going on. For the rest of her life, Cahalan was an ordinary person. Throughout the onset of her symptoms, she was diagnosed with everything from excessive alcohol consumption to bipolar disorder. The severity of these symptoms soon rose though, and she was confined to a hospital for a month, leaver her with only the vaguest of memories from that time: videos revealed her psychotic nature, doctors reports highlighting her inadequacy at even speaking. This breathtaking book takes  us through Cahalan’s shocking journey, revealing every aspect from her family’s grit and support, to the doctor who saved her life when many had abandoned her.

The style and fluency of this is outstanding. The way Cahalan illustrates the finer details is truly absorbing, with the balance between detail and factuality struck ideally. Of course, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as she is a journalist, but still you shouldn’t take eloquence for granted.

I am avid fan of neurology books, as frequent readers may have ascertained, and this book pleased me thoroughly. Due to the nature of Cahalan’s illness, it was unusually troublesome to pinpoint, so to read about all the various tests she had to take, such as memory recall (and how that deteriorated to an overwhelming extent) and the extract of spinal fluid both interested me. Can you believe, for example, that when Cahalan was asked to draw an ordinary clock, she drew this:

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People should read this book. Not because they might care about the science or even the tale of survival of a bright young woman. After all, in my opinion there was a distinctive lack of in-depth scientific knowledge- it would have been more interesting if there could have been a little more knowledge relating to her condition. No, people should read it because it will crush their complacency. Today we live in a push button society- you already know this. Change your appearance? Trip to the plastic surgeons and you’ll be fine. Change country, climate, job, life. All possible. What cannot be manipulated to such an extent is your health: there are still a lot of things that scientists and doctors simply do not know. There a thousands of illnesses with no cure. Some people claim bizarre diets work for them, others religion. But the truth of the matter is that for most people, once that disease is contracted there is nothing to be done; as a species we have much further to go before we can be satisfied with ourselves medically. We must never forget it might be us next- nobody grew up expecting to be that person falling ill.

This concept is conveyed expertly: multiple doctors gave her wildly inaccurate diagnoses. Many refused to treat her or gave up. One such thrilling element in the book are the red herrings, the missed clues and painstaking search to find a name for her condition, to identify it.

One notable issue is that there is no baseline character, so that when Cahalan does descend into a psychotic state, although things are clearly not as they ought to be, we don’t have a clear cut idea of the behavioural changes that been undertaken. Also, Cahalan has quite a forceful character, with this showing prominently in her writing and the episodes she describes. If you don’t enjoy people with that behavioural trait, it will make reading this slightly tougher as you lose a large proportion of the sympathy you would have had for her.

Generally, a great insight into a rare illness (Dalmau’s disease), that reveals that our brains are much more complex than anyone can fully comprehend.

Dear Lupin by Roger and Charlie Mortimer

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The book has also been turned into a play, which had a successful run at the Apollo Theatre

 

Dear readers,

Some say the message is medium: Dear Lupin is a collection of letters that span nearly 25 years, and through this form offer the most intimate insight into the Mortimers’ lives. If intimate is the right word- it seems like multiple opportunities to be delighted at the sheer hilarity of it is more suitable.

Letters. Seems dated now, doesn’t it? Something you only tend to at Christmas out of obligation, not because the simple act offers any sort of satisfaction. (I bet many people have said the same about over-indulging in mince pies, but there you go.) Here, it conveys admirably parental despair. In reality, nothing in our modern day with the prevalent technology could genuinely reveal to the same depth any relationship. Imagine being a historian, sifting through the one line texts. There’s no detail behind what we communicate now, because who has time to go into the neighbour’s health? Why bother? It’s this offhand thinking that not makes it difficult not only for people in the future to discern who we really are, but it makes life clouded for ourselves when we can’t even engage with each other. What does anything mean to us?

Roger Mortimer typically humoured the pages with self-deprecation or painstaking accurate remarks. “Doubtless you regard me as monumental bore, tolerated only at times because I fork out some cash, but senile as I am I probably know a bit more about you and your friends than you seem to realise” Hm. Bet a lot of parents today would be much more success in talking to their children if they realised in themselves these words.

Anyway, it is rather clear to see that although Charlie entertained a school career at Eton, it wasn’t exactly the most successful, as he was constantly reminded to try and get through a term “without a chorus of disapproval and despair from the unfortunate masters who have to try and teach you something.” Joyfully Charlie moves through life though, and it’s almost bizarre, like watching a time-lapse of a plant, to see the style and tone of the letters change. One moment it’s from a reprimanding father, another it’s from a more- well, still reprimanding father, but with a rather letter edge to the words.

“Dear Charles,                                                                                                                                        I am very impulsive. Your mother is also very impulsive. That is quite enough for one family. Let us have a little… deliberation from you. So to start with, get rid of that motorbike. I did not give you £40 for that, as you well know!”

But, like everything, things start to break down and crumble, and although the earlier letters were cheerful and lighthearted, punctuated with concerns, the hilarity seeps away towards the end of the collection, where above all Roger voices his fears of ageing, of dying. It is poignant and raw- often a gruff acceptance of fate that retells all our own fears. This is a book which will not only inspire you to laughter and morose reflection, but to start writing letters again yourself.

Best wishes,

Melrose

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (July Book of the Month)

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A darkly hilarious and witty novel exploring the day the world will end.

In a typical science fiction style, there is a concept, widely known- such as the end of the world- but through the lens of literature is spun around and examined deeply. Here, the embodiment of Good, Aziraphale an angel and Evil, Crowley a demon (formerly Crawley the snake from the garden of Eden) battle over who can manipulate the Antichirst into siding with them, so that when the fateful Judgement day arrives with the expected war, the child would launch a particular side to victory.  Not that the pair wanted a war. Both the angel and demon rather enjoyed being on Earth, having gotten used to human schisms in the way that their compatriots hadn’t. In fact, the Crowley and Aziraphale have a close friendship: not only have they known each other centuries, but they realised that they actually had more in common that anyone could imagine. Yet thanks to a mishap in the baby-swap securing the Antichrist, the forces shadowed and prodded the wrong child for over a decade, meaning that instead of bursting with virtues or spewing threats, the 11 year old antichrist Adam was just a defiant country boy, and an ordinary boy Warlock had been wrongly harassed by demons and angels his entire life. That’s where the trouble started.

When two of the funniest, most renowned authors in their field join to write a novel, it will produce something glorious. There are a wide range of characters, from Metatron (the voice of God) to KGB agents who feed ducks. The hilarity, but not obtuseness, that pervades this novel is astounding, and is guaranteed to provoke reactions from even the sternest of readers. (It even says in the Afternote that all the pair were trying to do was to make each other laugh.)

It started off as a parody of the Just William books, where William was the Antichrist, but soon evolved into something much smarter and engaging: after all, on the Judgement Day there are Four Horsemen, although as it’s modern day, it’s now Bikers. Famine, for one, sells diet books and invented nouvelle cuisine, whilst War was a war-correspondent, who somehow always managed to be in areas of conflict before they even started (the other two Bikers can be a surprise for you to find out). All said, it’s amazing. Even better is Anathema Device, a self-procclamed occultist with a book from her ancestor- The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter- that predicts correctly the future. (As it was so accurate, nobody bought it.) This supernatural element is counter-balanced by Newt Pulsifer though, who is a begrudging member of the Witchfinder’s Army, and has the awkward history of his ancestor burning alive Agnes, making the union between the two incredibly interesting.

The highlight of this book for me was undoubtedly the intricate footnotes. Apparently Gaiman and Pratchett would write footnotes for each other’s work, resulting in quips  bursting with puns, which always lightened the mood. On the other hand, the subplots added a great twist to the story, helpfully giving the reader a refreshed perspective of the main plot as they often added useful background information. But occasionally they were spasmodically inserted and felt random, being often obscure and hard to follow, and felt like sometimes they were only there so that a few jokes could be made.

I would recommend this novel to fans of fantasy, science-fiction, or anyone who is vaguely interested in the works of either author. It’s a fantastic reading experience!

 

1984 by George Orwell

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Are classic works beyond criticism? Perhaps. Since literary professors have devoted their careers to hallowed sentences, should one dare to question their opinion, with the threat of passive aggressive comments later (or is that just from fandoms)?

Yes. One should continually review and question the work of the professors, not just to discover the merits (or the conceived merits) of classic pieces, but to learn of your own stance on such controversial topics discussed.

The most notable thing that spruced from this book was the lack of tangibility concerning the characters. The protagonist, Winston Smith, had no defining traits or features, except for his rebellious streak which might not even set him out to be individual, but as one of many aspiring revolutionaries. My hope was to discover a Bonsai: a character that had been nurtured, not necessarily sheltered from action though, and cultivated into their own skin of ink and imagination. Sadly not. Driven by a desire for sex and Victory gin and not much else, Winston is a pathetic man to spend your afternoons with. When he is tortured, it’s not painful to read- unpleasant certainly- but the fires of anguish and sympathy are not ruthfully burning. You would think that Orwell would have devoted a bit more time to fleshing out, but if Winston was to be discovered on paper, it seems like paper he would remain.

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English Socialism-a political philosophy

It is common knowledge that 46% of American adults cannot understand the label on their prescription medicine, so perhaps the language used in the mid-20th century would be a problem for the masses. Alas, alas, if only it were so. The writing is bland. Bland like builder’s tea (I’m much more a green tea person myself). Or cardboard. Perhaps this is the message that Orwell was trying to spread to us: we should inherently not use paper for anything like writing stories as it’ll only bore you: all theses papery references must count for something. I did count down the pages until the end which is never good a sign either.

The pace is unforgivable. My tortoise could waddle 100m faster: yes, there’s a climatic moment (Orwell was not an idiot after all) and perhaps intrigue, but generally it plopped along with an agenda that would horrify all overly zealous 3rd Grade teachers. (The  high intonations and tattooed on smiles never seem to go out of fashion in the education industry.) In fact, only a tree would grow slower than the pace. Coincidence? I think my point is proven. The arc of the plot is predictable to say the least, so it seems that there is little of interest in literary terms with 1984, except…

On the other hand (always a risky sentence starter) the ideas that are conveyed do hold significant weight. The themes of the proletariat rising to power, a theory cultivated by Marx, and their potential to do so was intriguing. At the time it must have caused the upper society to melt into enraged philosophical discussion, however today our society has evolved into something more unusual. The nature of the working classes, when nations are compared, is that they are astoundingly contrasting, so for a society like the one in 1984 to be created where the lower classes rise to power, it would have to be localised to a country or region, with people rebelling against a certain government/ specific policy. Not a worldwide movement as many people stand for many things.

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There is a flaw in the argument as at the moment not only are people under different governmental regimes, which means when the proletariat united rise to power their idea  of how power should be would, realistically, differ depending on culture (so not all inherently communist), but that at the moment many people are happy with the status quo.

Jo Brand said 1984 was ‘more relevant today than almost any other book’, however I feel that whilst identity and freedom are discussed, the underlying motives of the plot are entirely mischaracterised by Brand. Of course with more digital products entering our lives, it is easier to collect personal data. So the concept or value of privacy has undoubtedly evolved, but it is not eliminated like it is the book. In 1984 people are ruthlessly violent and racism is rife towards the prisoners of war with insults breeding everywhere:​ in the age of `Generation Snowflake’, there hardly seems a time where people are more emotionally protected or more sheltered from raw comments. But perhaps because now more than ever, they have to be.

June Book of the Month- Grief is the thing with feathers-Max Porter

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A pocket-sized explosion of character and immense profundity.

Porter create separate strands of perspective using multiple points of view, which help form a precise map of emotion concerning the aftermath of a women’s death. It weaves a journey through the characters’ catharsis, too.

This isn’t a dazed process though: grief is personified as a crow. A whimsical and fantastical idea, as Crow contrasts the moping father by inserting humour into the piece, especially when he becomes borderline hyper-emotional:

 “The whole city is my missing her. Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”

Crow adds a technicolour aspect to the novel, with his attitude to the suffering family of sons and father offering a fresh view of what grief truly is.

The father, a Ted Hughes’ scholar, awkwardly straddles his new-found parental responsibilities over his two sons by ignoring them completely, his sons gently breaking the rules for the sake of it. There are nights of numbness, lasagne, easy laughter because they managed to forget, forget that the hole burnt in their lives by loss exists and should be suffocating them.

The boys are never separated. They remain always identical, similar to A.A.Gill when he referenced the Twins. Although they have different opinions, floating across the page with lyrically, they are always referred to as one. Like youth in many situations, they aren’t indifferent, but more indifferent in an aching way. They don’t linger on the event, but steely smile on, brushing aside their father’s solemn outlook on life.

The concept of metaphorizing an emotion is simply an idea which I believe we all wish we came up with ourselves. It is written in the style of a continuous poem, with the imagery created outstanding and resulting in an ethereal engagement in the text on the reader’s behalf. Presented in the style of snippets of babbling thoughts, poignant reflections and fragmented memories, the brief novel consumes the themes of realisation and sadness beautifully, deserving to be absorbed by all.

 

The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

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Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

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Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman

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Given that he serves as a professor at Stanford University, the department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, he certainly knows his facts.

Neurons fire and seeming random clustered pixels form to make words. Perhaps you’re sipping on coffee, eyes rolling as I attempt to predict your movements, the rim of the cup nevertheless brought to your lips. And then a miracle takes place. I know it; Eagleman devoted most of a chapter to how someone was able to perform the seemingly simplistic act of drinking, how the millions of decisions, which control your muscles, sense of balance and so on, all happen behind a veil of obliviousness. He sets out to explain the complexity of the actions we take for granted. These snippets of stories, such as how we walk or why we make friends with certain people, and half-formed scenes are underscored by in-depth, yet intelligible analysis- with accompanying surprising experiments to highlight the sheer beauty of the spongle-like muscle locked behind bone.

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This is an ingenious book because it tears away the shadow of mystery from a part of our lives. Why do we want to help others? Why do we connect with non-animate objects? Given that we’ve only recently evolved into a society which doesn’t hold the necessity of wild foraging as an imperative, it suddenly doesn’t seem like a completely unconsidered question. When our ancestors were lolling around, and the framework for our brains today were being carved out, it was about survival; holding the cave door open wouldn’t get you anywhere. So where did this altruism spring from (at least in some people… in others, sadly, it appears to be an evolutionary step which bypassed them).

Eagleman answers the questions about yourself you never even thought to ask, and delights you with answers that make you wish, if you could swallow medical school, you too could be a neuroscientist.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Book of the Month- May A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld. Rincewind. The Unseen University. And, of course, antipasta.

Do you even read science-fiction if these words are alien to you? Terry Pratchett, the author of over 70 books, was a literary mastermind (who created the aforementioned words, or in the case of antipasta, decided that it was actually pasta that was prepared, like all antimatter, several hours after you ate it). He created the Discworld, a mega-series that contained no less than 41 novels. In 2000, he was voted the nation’s favourite author by the people of Britain. (Well, 2nd favourite author, if you include Rowling!) But Pratchett was also a remarkable campaigner for Alzheimer’s, animal rights and having a bit of sense of a sense of humour.

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In this collection of his most celebrated speeches and articles, there is hardly an instance where one isn’t littered with a witty pun or sly joke. This book surveys almost the entirety of Pratchett’s lifetime, reflecting on his time at school, the nuclear power station (who knew?) as well as his career in journalism. Given that Pratchett, as far as I know, has no official biography, this is all we have. This snapshot of various moments of his life is all the people who admired this man, who’d become a knight in his lifetime, can go by.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.” Pratchett

And why would you want to go without? By reading this, I have gained such an invaluable insight into not only his writing methods, but more memorably his stance on Alzheimer’s and assisted death in the UK. Pratchett was probably one of the most famous sufferers of the disease when he was alive, donating £1 million to their charity and creating various documentaries. Reading this has given me such a remarkable perspective on the topic of euthanasia, that it was starting to become a much more philosophical read than I had bargained for!

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I was incredibly moved, too. To be able see in the articles the progression of topics from childhood anecdotes, to his endless book signing tours- where he always wrote about how incredulous he was at his popularity- to hearing the frustration and anger in his words as he described the onset of the disease. How he could no longer type, because the letters would disappear from the keyboard. How he could no longer read his own speeches, and had to have someone else present them for him. To hear such a renowned and literally accomplished person describe their struggles is something that is painful, yet if you respect them, necessary to endure.

In a way, this is possibly better than a biography. The pointless parts, the vague relationships and holes between occupations have already been melted away, so only the quality information is left for us to experience. Of course, occasionally there was repetition of a phrase here or there, yet this was only to be expected since Pratchett had given more interviews and written more articles than anyone could possibly perceive, so to expect every piece to be completely original is borderline ludicrous.

When I was younger, I wrote Terry a letter. I even him drew a dragon, something that I was truly proud of, and was even slightly reluctant to send it away. I did it nonetheless, but I never received a reply from him. It’s not in bitterness that I mention this, but merely in recollection. Particularly towards the end of his life, Pratchett noted that he was receiving so many emails and letters that it he would never have the time to rely to  even a fraction of them, and the immense feeling of regret that filled him at the thought of this.

I suppose this book really is only relevant it to you if you like science-fiction, or at the very least Terry himself. And if you’re unfamiliar, then make it your priority to explore one his books straight away- you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised. I guarantee it.

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit- Jeanette Winterson

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Winterson based this novel on her own childhood

The bones of this book are made from the Bible. Yet it is also constructed from the joyous shredding of beliefs, when Jeanette starts to question her religious upbringing by her Pentecostal parents.

Religion? You might say. Religion; today the cause of wars, shootings and fear. Religion; a burden on society that is as addictive as it is dangerous. Why would I want to read about something like this? I’ve enough of it in the skirting the tabloids next to gruesome photojournalism. Why should you read this? Because it’s hilarious. It opens with the frank lines; “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.” There is an honesty behind these words, a vivid way that the characters are illustrated that it seems like the story can be nothing but genuine. It follows Jeanette’s childhood, where her predominant influences were her strict (adopted) mother, driving her to be a missionary and the local church community. Initially homeschooled, legal obligations forced her to school;

‘”Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. “Because if you don’t go I will go to prison” … “But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.”      “I know that” (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) … “but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.”‘

Jeanette struggled with fitting in with her decidedly non-Christian classmates, as well as  with desire, when she falls in love with one of the girls at the Church. At sixteen, she is forced to decide between religion and love, family or girlfriend.  And the question that rages in Jeanette’s mind is; why can’t I have both? 

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Personally, I do think that there is a slight inequality in the amount of male and female characters, but given that this is a book about matriarchy in society and lesbian love, there isn’t much room for omnipresent male characters…. maybe not such an appalling thing, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that there are a few but they’re more secondary/ tertiary characters, hence the visibility of this ‘inequality’.) It doesn’t detract from the quality of the plot though, even if the storyline is more thought-provoking pace than action packed.

One issue, however, was the slight irrelevance of the myth theme of Percival which was introduced; it did offer variation from the wintry grey industrial scene, and it was an unusual way to represent Jeanette’s story (I presume that’s what it was), however it did appear to be part of the novel as a mystical exciting feature, rather than something which was actively contributing to the story.

The wonderful thing about this was observing the transformation of Jeanette, and the way her comically awkward tone dominated her perspective of childhood. Although it’s set in the drab Midlands, this novel is a sparkling example of fiction at its finest. Like all novels, there’s an interesting reflection of author in it, too: the fact that the protagonist has the same name is the author is not the only similarity- the novel is actually based on Winston’s own upbringing, where she explores her childhood by turning herself into a fictional character.

Anyway, generally a great 20th century novel that is worth the title of a classic. If you’re a literature fan, then you should have read this by now (!), so I recommend this specifically to teenagers, mainly because the book discusses the pressures of conformity. A pressure they are no doubt familiar with, so reading this might just be an eye-opener on the topic.

April Book of the Month- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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The original legend of the Essex serpent was Perry’s inspiration

A compelling novel that explores the relationships that tie people together- and break them apart.

Set in 1893, the Essex Serpent follows a troop of characters as Cora Seaborne reacts to her husband’s death. Far from the respectful widow, for reasons which Perry tantalisingly hints to throughout, Seaborne is delighted with her newly-found freedom, escaping with her maid and son to the marshy plains of Essex.

Revelling in her man’s overcoats and the death of the whale-bone corset, Seaborne indulges in her passion for archaeology, and finds for herself what might be a living fossil. Only seen by the disaster it had struck- stolen children, sheep drowned, madness seeping throughout the minds of those in the Aldwinter town- it seems like the Essex Serpent has arisen from the estuary once more. Drawn unfathomably to her polar opposite, the brusque local vicar William (whilst she has her beliefs firmly grounded in science), they explore the nature of the rumours together, discovering for themselves not only the power behind a relationship, but the consequences it can have on others, too.

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This novel is brimming with positive attributes: firstly, it is a joyfully authentic Victorian novel, where every detail, though not tediously precise, contributes to the stifling atmosphere of the smog-filled streets, or helps conjure up the tension that Darwin’s new theory had struck up amongst those in society. So this can appeal to those that love to dabble in the historic genre, especially since this is one of the few 19th-century (style) novels that not only have women starring as protagonists, but are actively rebelling against the roles that society had given them, with the consequences shown, too. Dracula, Frankenstein and Oliver Twist, classics though they may be, don’t give a flavour for the life of women, and although there may be Austen with Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey (which was unbelievably dull, like a stale cracker), here you almost have the real thing but things you care about actually happen.

Like the mystery behind a giant snake in an estuary. Who said mythical beasts couldn’t be in successful adult novels? (It did win Waterstone’s 2016 Book of the Year, after all.) This adds an aspect of intrigue and fantasy to the novel, creating a tone of wonder after it has been soured slightly by the maid Martha ranting about the London Housing Crisis. (Something which I was completely ignorant of beforehand, but now I feel suitably educated in thanks to reading this.) That’s another positive; it covers a wide spectrum of characters in terms of ages and backgrounds, so that the plot isn’t isolated in the stuffy upper-class corner. (Admittedly, it doesn’t have someone from every single ethnic background, or sexual orientation, which apparently has become the benchmark for a book with ‘character equality’ these days, but it satisfies me.)

All in all, a superb read which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in historical literature or emotive, fantastical writing with complex relationships between characterss.