Solvitur Ambulando: Walking with my Mental Health

Solvitur ambulando: an appeal to practical experience for a solution, Latin, literally “(the problem) is solved by walking”.

Huntspill River

I feel very fortunate to have grown up where I did. Granted, when I was actually doing that growing up I didn’t think much of my stretch of the Somerset coast, what with its murky seawaters, its treacherous sinking mud, its boggy, flooded fields. But now that I’m a little older and (I like to think) a little wiser, I’ve really come to appreciate how privileged I am to have been shaped by what truly is such a beautiful and formidable landscape.

I’ve been exploring that landscape a lot lately. I’ve always been a firm devotee of rambling—when it comes to the great outdoors, I believe that following your nose and getting completely lost is all part of the fun. And so when the springtime brings with it clear skies and warm weather, I can usually be found miles from home, perched on a hillside or following a riverbank deep inland.

River Brue

Now, one of the things I so love about embarking on a good ramble—besides the opportunity for some bitchin’ Facebook cover photos, of course—is the benefits it yields for my mental health.

It’s advice that’s given out so often it’s almost become a self-care cliché, that a little exercise and fresh air can go a long way when it comes to issues like depression and anxiety.

But as generic as it sounds, there is actually a lot of truth to it. Admittedly, I’m not too clued up on the exact reasons why—partly because research on the subject still appears to be relatively scant, and partly because I payed too little attention in school science classes to start understanding biology now. But according to organisations like Mind and the NHS, even the simplest act of exercise is enough to give you a quick shot of endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals whose name I can only imagine was chosen to conjure images of happy, playful mind-dolphins.

Or, if like me you still need the help of Pixar’s Inside Out to understand the complexities of the human brain, the simpler explanation is that being active, much like Shalamar, can make you feel good. And although walking might not involve Lycra or ball skills, it still counts as exercise, and is still enough to get those endorphins flowing.

Glastonbury Tor

For me, however, the role walking has played in my recovery over the years goes beyond just getting a quick self-esteem boost from a little physical activity.

As a writer, I’ve always found walking to be highly conducive to problem-solving: whenever I feel writer’s block setting in, I always go outside and work through it on my feet. It’s as if by undertaking the physical act of getting from here to there I’m able to trick my brain into making a progression of its own from problem through to solution. In fact, I’m actually writing this very sentence on the move—to borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

In time, I came to apply this practice to my mental wellbeing too. If you’ve not suffered from a mental illness before, you might not be aware that part of what makes them so potent is the state of reeling confusion that floods in their wake, as the initial Blitzkrieg assault leaves you with no idea of what the hell is happening to you or where the hell it came from. All of a sudden your emotional spectrum is thrown off balance, your nerves are stretched tight, the earth itself might have moved beneath your feet for all you know—all you can say for certain is that something, somewhere, has gone wrong.

Jennycliff

It was whilst in this state of blindness that walking became invaluable to me. Where some sufferers use exercise as a distraction or to rebuild confidence, I used it to piece together the puzzle my life had become. It was a form of meditation, I suppose, or self-counselling. Just as I did with writer’s block, I would leave the house with a single, simple question in mind, and allow the cadence of my feet and my surroundings to coax some sense out of the uncertainty; the only difference was, instead of exploring some sticky passage or narrative hitch, I’d ask myself “Why do I struggle talking to people now?”, or “Why do I keep having panic attacks in the middle of Tesco?”

Although confronting my newfound vulnerabilities in that way was terrifying at first, by talking them for a walk (so to speak) I was able to explore them in a calm, methodical way, following those daunting questions through to clarity the same way I’d follow my feet to a destination. It enabled me to make sense of what I was going through in a way that counsellors’ advice and medical definitions had never come close to before, and ultimately led me to regaining that feeling of self-control I had lost when my illness began—in other words, walking through my problems allowed me to go from just knowing how to fight fires when they arose, to understanding why they started in the first place and thus how to prevent them in the future.

And so whilst it would be beyond a stretch to say that my beef with the Big D has been completely solved by walking, I certainly feel justified in saying that a large part of my journey back to stability is owed to the introspective power of a good long walk. Solvitur ambulando? Perhaps not yet—but it definitely is helping.

Plymouth Hoe

Disclaimer: although walking, and indeed any exercise, is great for taking a little extra care of your mental wellbeing, that doesn’t necessarily make it a treatment for mental illness by itself. Mental health issues are complex, with as many solutions as there are problems, and exercise is just one of many potential ways of tackling them—for more on that, read this post on Mind.org.

Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

March in Books: 1984; Everything Ravaged; When the Women Come Out to Dance

I didn’t get an awful lot read in February, what with working through Eleanor Catton’s mammoth The Luminaries for my Booktrotting project. But this month I’ve been back on it—and apparently jumping back in at the very deep end, with my reading list taking a sharp right turn into some very bleak waters. So bleak, in fact, that I had to take these books out into the spring sunshine to make up for it…

1984, George OrwellYes, I know, who isn’t reading George Orwell at the moment? But 1984 has been loitering on my bookcase for a long, long time now, and I figured jumping on the social commentary bandwagon was as good a way as any of finally ticking this off the “must-read” list.

Although now that I’ve finally got round to it, I must admit I found 1984 to be a little…dry. As a concept and a socio-political essay the ideas it conveys are really something else, but as a novel I found its many discourses too distracting and its plot too pedestrian to get into. Perhaps one day I’ll return to 1984 and discover what it is I’ve missed this first time around—but for now, I think I’ll hand my copy on to someone who’ll enjoy it more.


Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower

Continuing on with the air of desolate gloom established by 1984, this debut collection of short stories by Wells Tower read about as lightly as its title suggests. It’s a heavy brew of divorce, poverty, child abuse and more, acted out by a cast of invariably wretched characters and to a soundtrack of bitter fatalism—looking back, Everything Ravaged seems to be a pretty apt description for how I felt come the end.

But it’s also an exceptionally well-crafted set of stories. Whilst the raw subject matter might not be “enjoyable” in the typical sense of the word, the way in which Tower presents it is certainly easy to admire—particularly his hallmark oily black humour, which lingers at the end of each story like the afterburn of vomiting up bad whisky. If you like your literature grim and sardonic (like Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, for example) you could do worse than checking out Wells Tower.


When the Women Come Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard

On the face of it, this set of two novellas and seven short stories by the venerable Elmore Leonard doesn’t quite fit tonally in a lineup with 1984 and Everything Ravaged. Where Wells Tower dived into his seedy and debased world right from the start, Leonard begins softly, with human interest stories of infirmity and lost glory days.

But from that foundation, Leonard builds When the Women into an arguably much more penetrating portrait of modern America than Tower is able to. It feels eerily natural when the restless malcontent of the opening stories slides into the tales of violence and racial tension that fill the second half. Read in 2017, that transition becomes a striking image of the path down which American disaffection is so easily led—made all the more poignant by Leonard’s tone, which handles the worst of his characters not with grit or twisted humour, but with a powerless frustration, a resignation that things are what they are and will continue to be. Sure, it might be easy these days to reach for the Orwells, Atwoods and Huxleys, but don’t overlook Elmore Leonard if you want your reading with a side of social relevance.

Booktrotting in Australia: Breath

After departing 19th century New Zealand, my Booktrotting tour comes to the final stop on its Oceania leg, Australia—more specifically, the southwest coast of Tim Winton’s Breath.

Rising sharply from the seabed the shoal at Old Smoky was like a sunken building, windows open, teeming with blue morwongs, harlequins and boarfish. In the water column above, schools of buffalo bream churned restless circles; in the mouths of caves were lobsters the size of cattle dogs.


In a small mill town on the Australian west coast, eleven-year-old Bruce Pike grows up exhausted by the stillness of his surroundings. Together with town wild boy Loonie, he is drawn out to the booming ocean on his doorstep, and falls under the spell of the power of the waves and the mythical knot of men who surf them. Soon the boys have boards of their own—and spurred on by their own young courage and the awe of their peers, Pikelet and Loonie enter into an intoxicating world of exhilaration, immortality and fear.

I changed my mind a lot when looking for an Australian Booktrotting read; pretty much everywhere I looked turned up something that caught my eye, from The Secret River and The Narrow Road to the Deep North to anything by Miles Franklin.

But when I found Tim Winton’s “love letter to the sea” Breath, I settled on it straight away. Granted, my own stretch of the Somerset coast is a far cry from the bluffs and bomboras of Western Australia, but nevertheless I, like young Pikelet, have grown up beside and in reverence of the ocean, and I always love authors who can put that feeling into better words than I’ve ever managed. Add in Pike’s small town upbringing and love of literature, and I thought he would be a character that was achingly familiar, despite our being separated by some 9,000 miles.

Surfers at Paradise Beach, Queensland, P.J. Robertson / CC-BY-SA-2.0
And yet, in spite of the many similarities, I struggled to find much relation with Pike’s story. Obviously surfing is a major part of Breath, and, although Winton keeps the jargon to an understandable minimum, there were plenty of times when I felt too far removed from Pike’s experiences to really engage with them. In particular, Winton’s depictions of the act of surfing itself (“the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears”) often lost clarity amidst the breathless adrenaline of the moment.

(I did however find an affinity with Pikelet when he confessed he could get no more than a few chapters into Moby Dick—I wondered if he, like I, had fallen for Melville’s opening poetry about the allure of the ocean, only to be turned off by all the whaling gore and narrative tangents that followed.)

Coolum Beach, Queensland, Vanderven / CC-BY-SA-2.5
But to treat Breath as just a surfing novel would be to ignore its greatest attribute. This is, above all, a coming-of-age story, a terrific (and no doubt autobiographical) snapshot of life on the cusp of manhood in 1970s Australia. It’s as much about the ocean as it is about family, masculinity, and finding one’s place in the world.

The surfing is just an extension of that. Thanks to the likes of Home and Away, it’s easy for us in Britain to see surfing as nothing more than an Aussie cliché—but to Loonie and Pikelet, under the tutelage of their hippy mentor Sando, it’s a rite of passage, their personal bridge from innocence to adulthood.

To Pike, his time on the waves is also a means of vital self-expression. During his first encounters with Sando and the other surfers, he is enthralled by the elegance of what they can do, by “how strange it was to see men do something beautiful,” and later notes how his own style of surfing has a grace and finesse that Loonie’s blind bravado lacks. He regards surfing as a kind of physical poetry, something “pointless and beautiful” that exists beyond the ideas of masculinity his traditional, agricultural hometown has to offer. It seems strange to say, given surfing’s modern day image, but for Bruce Pike—and perhaps for Tim Winton too—taking on the ocean was not about the death-defying thrill, but about finding his own interpretation of what it is to be a man.

The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Richard Mikalsen / CC-BY-SA-3.0
From Australia my Booktrotting tour now leaves Oceania behind and begins its third leg, in Asia—beginning with The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.

Booktrotting in New Zealand: The Luminaries

Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?

In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.

It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.

But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.

Hokitika River and Hokitika Gorge, Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.

But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.

And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).

Hokitika Township ca 1870s, James Ring / National Library of New Zealand (public domain)

But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.

To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.

Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.

The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.

But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…

Lake Matheson, Mrogex / CC-BY-SA

Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.

The Clown and the Crook: Finding Trump in Shakespeare’s Othello

It’s hard not to see reflections of Donald Trump in art these days. Take the sudden climb up the bestseller lists for George Orwell and other dystopian authors, or the obvious comparisons between Trump and fellow dark lord Voldemort—even his White House screening of Finding Dory couldn’t pass without irony. For a man whose presidential campaign was as steeped in narcissism as it was devoid of morality, such ubiquity in popular culture must be a dream come true.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that I saw Trump again on the weekend, in a production of Othello by the Shakespeare arm of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. He came of course in the form of the play’s antagonist, Iago, whose plot to destroy the eponymous Moor by tearing down his marriage to Desdemona makes him one of Shakespeare’s most malevolent villains.

The surface comparisons between Trump and Iago are easy to see: his blatant lies about Desdemona’s adultery, for example; or how he promises to return to Roderigo, a white Venetian, the wife he feels Othello, a black immigrant, has stolen from him. Like Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, he moves from character to character pretending to offer help, all the while manipulating them for his own ends instead. But what made this particular iteration so resonant was STF’s Mark Lockyer, whose portrayal of Iago, whether by design or coincidence, took those parallels to the current President to a much greater depth.

Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.
Mark Lockyer as Iago. Photo by Camilla Adams, via The Tobacco Factory.

Lockyer’s character was full of charisma. Instead of his default portrayal as a two-faced conniver, Iago became something of an enigmatic anti-hero, drawing laughter and camaraderie from the audience as he divulged his schemes. Given his role in the play, the rapport he was able to create was downright sinister. His attacks on Othello’s marriage and mental state were received almost like the blows of a plucky, underdog gladiator—seated as we were in tiers surrounding the Tobacco Factory’s central stage, it was certainly difficult to suppress the feeling of being in a Roman arena, lapping up the bloody spectacle on the sands below.

Perhaps it would have been easier to see Iago for what he was, had his scenes not been lit invariably by a ring of hard white strip lights around the stage. Under their relentless glare, his intrigues were thrown into such a nauseating clarity that they seemed dreamlike, a little fuzzy at the edges, and that unreality gave Iago free rein to distort himself as necessary. To Roderigo he was the ever-helpful ally; to Othello and Cassio, he was crude but innocuous. On the rare occasion he let his guard slip and another character caught sight of his true self (as Desdemona does in Act Two), their criticisms are waved away—that’s just Honest Iago, they’re reminded, he’s only saying what we all wish we could.

Only to the audience is the full picture of Iago’s malice usually revealed, though on this occasion Lockyer does his very best to hide it even from them. He riffs on the dramatic irony of his character’s multiple false faces, using it to paint him with the broad, clownish strokes of many of Shakespeare’s other antagonists; in return for his seemingly humble self-awareness, Iago is allowed the confidence of those who should have all they need to condemn him. His soliloquies are punctuated with a set of all-too-familiar hand gestures—even the “Trump Pump” handshake makes an appearance—and Lockyer exaggerates his delivery until what Iago actually says gets lost beneath how he says it.

Only at the very end, as the stage lights illuminate the play’s bloody climax, does the audience realise that it too has been duped—that the buffoonery it thought was so genuine was just another layer of deception. In the tense quiet that hung about the final scene, it was hard to tell if the onlookers were more stunned by the full extent of Iago’s grand plan, or by his success in convincing them that he could never truly pull it off.

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.

It may well be that the resemblance I saw between Trump and Iago was nothing more than the influence of the times. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but compare the shock of Iago’s unmasking with that of Trump’s presidential election victory.

Like Iago, Trump’s changing faces had enabled him to pull off the impossible: he rose to prominence in a Republican party convinced that he was harmless; he won the support of millions convinced he was on his side; and, perhaps most importantly, he basked in the apathy of rivals convinced he was a candidate too ludicrous to oppose.

I can’t speak for those around me in the audience, but the Iago I saw in Bristol put me in mind of this piece by journalist Ron Rosenbaum. In comparing Donald Trump’s campaign trail image to that of Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, Rosenbaum says: “Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at others a sleeping serpent, at others a trustworthy statesman.”

It was those same tactics of bluff that allowed Lockyer’s Iago to keep the danger he posed hidden from the rest of Othello‘s characters, just as they allowed the true potency of Donald Trump’s campaign to go unnoticed beneath the mockery of his legitimacy as a candidate. In laughing at the jester the audience was played for a fool—all that remains to be seen is whether that laughter will stop now the clown paint has been removed.

January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.