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.