Monthly Archives: September 2016

THE LIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES by Paul Pen

the-light-of-the-fireflies-by-paul-pen

At the outset of this book, I felt I was reading something similar to ROOM: a young boy has been living in a basement his entire life, has never seen the outside world, and spends hours at a time mesmerised by the one small patch of natural daylight that’s made its way into his home. There’s carrot soup, books, talcum powder, betamax videos and rat poison aplenty. In other words someone bring supplies on a fairly regular basis. The boy, whose name we never learn, lives with his parents, grandmother, brother and sister.  A seventh place is always set at the table. All but the boy and his brother are badly scarred from burns, and the sister wears a white mask to entirely cover her face . The boy has never seen what’s beneath the mask or another human being. The book opens with him discovering fireflies in the basement and his sister giving birth. The father is fierce, the grandmother blind, the brother clumsy and aggressive. The boy has always been told he can leave whenever he wants, but one day finds out the kitchen door he believed unlocked, isn’t. If he is naughty, the Cricket Man, will get him.  So far so disturbing.

About half way through, the story switches to the past, and we learn why this family are living the way they do, at which point the dynamics diverge from those of Emma Donoghue’s novel and a whole new level of understanding and meaning is revealed.  Nothing could be more apt here than Philip Larkin’s warning: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”

Pen has written an atmospheric book – the claustrophobia of life in the basement is palpable and he builds tension carefully and cleverly. There’s some interesting moral dilemmas raised too, including the extent to which we are culpable for actions that are beyond our control, and at what point protecting one child becomes cruelty to another. But overall, THE LIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES just didn’t rung sufficiently true enough to strike a real chord with me, not just the premise of the plot but the characters too and how they behaved. I was unsettled but unmoved, and would choose ROOM over this anytime.

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THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

the-essex-serpent-by-sarah-perry

“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”

 

 

 

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