When I started this ‘blog, I could divide my reading almost entirely into two, neat piles: SFF and degree-related. There was the occasional blip, maybe a Holmes book or something, but I was essentially a one-track reader when it came to leisure books. These days, it’s a bit different (and besides, the factual stuff I read is all for fun now anyway), so it seemed like it might be a good idea to post about those things too… though maybe smaller ones, since I don’t want to be forever ‘blogging. Because I decided to set myself a reading goal on Goodreads this year, as I want to know how many books I read (beyond 2016’s “well, I know it was more than 52…”), and if I’m logging them already, what real increase in effort is a short post while I’m about it. So here we are.
If I’m honest, I picked this up simply because it is beautiful.
It was the Waterstone’s recommended book when I was in there over Christmas with my mother, and there were just so many of it around, and it kept being pretty at me… well, I’m clearly a sucker for good marketing. Especially since it’s absolutely not my usual fare. Waterstone’s blurbs it thus:
Set in 1893 and firmly rooted in the author’s home county of Essex, the novel centres on the character of Cora Seaborne, a widow freed from a controlling, unhappy marriage. Retreating to the Essex countryside with her son, she hears the rumours surrounding the so-called ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore being blamed for a spate of deaths and disturbances and the cause of escalating panic in the local community. Her ensuing investigations bring her into contact with a clergyman, William Ransome, a man convinced of finding the answer to local hysteria in faith, just as Cora is on finding it in science. Despite their differing opinions, their lives become ever-more enmeshed, finding themselves bound to each other in ways neither could anticipate.
There’s a hint of potential supernatural about it, but overall it is clearly a book about people and relationships. That was clear from the outset, and I was at no point duped about what it was going to be, and thus lured into reading about feelings. I did so knowingly.
And I actually enjoyed it.
To be clear, it’s not the sort of book I want to read all of the time, but after The Three-Body Problem, it was refreshingly relateable and emotive, and just what I needed. I cared desperately about the characters, and that mattered a great deal. Things do happen, and the plot is both interesting and interestingly laid out, the main chapter breaks being the months of the year in which the events happen. But mainly, we’re hear for the inner workings of the heads of the main characters, and they are so utterly, beautifully human and well-described that it is a joy. I forget, through so much exposure to SFF, that if you stray outside the genre you find people who really can write people*. So it’s nice to stray.
The relationships and emotions at the centre of it all are love, love as friends, as lovers, as spouses and as something outside of everything. It contrasts the destructive, hurtful love of Cora’s dead husband at the start with her other relationships through the book as she finds who she can be as a free woman, and how she has been moulded by her marriage, and to what extent she can change herself from that. What it does best, I think, is allow you to side with Cora in some of her conflicts, only to realise as she does that she was in the wrong all along, and feel with her her guilt and contrition when it’s not something she can easily fix. You get so far inside her head your feelings tie up with hers, and it’s beautiful.
Like the times when I read Donna Tartt, this book is a pleasant reminder that there are things I love outside of genre fic, and maybe I should indulge that feeling now and again. But perhaps only now and again. I do hanker after space lasers and fireballs too.
*Yes yes, I know there are plenty of genre-fic writers who do do good people. I know. But let me have my hyperbole, especially when I do have a point, overall. A bit.