The Mare written by Mary Gaitskill

the mare

Title: The Mare
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Publisher:  Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication:  20 April 2017
Number of Pages: 439

Rating: 4-star

Summary: Ginger is in her forties and a recovering alcoholic when she meets and marries Paul. When it becomes clear it’s too late for her to have a baby of her own, she tries to persuade him to consider adoption, but he already has a child from a previous marriage and is ten years older than her, so doesn’t share her longing to be a parent at any cost. As a compromise, they sign up to an organisation that sends poor inner-city kids to stay with country families for a few weeks in the summer, and so one hot July day eleven year old Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl from one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighbourhoods, arrives in their lives, and Ginger is instantly besotted.

Bemused by her gentle middle-aged hosts, but deeply intuitive in the way of clever children, Velvet quickly senses the longing behind Ginger’s rapturous attention. While Velvet returns her affection, she finds the intensity of it bewildering. Velvet’s own passions are more excited by the stables nearby, where she discovers she has a natural talent for riding and a deep affinity with the damaged horses cared for there. But when Ginger begins to entertain fantasies of adopting her, things start to get complicated for everyone involved.

This is a heartbreakingly honest and profoundly moving portrait of the nearly unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings despite knowing that they don’t exist.

Review: There are so many reasons why this book shouldn’t work in the format that Gaitskill has written it. Each chapter continues the preceding chapter but is told by a different character in a completely different voice. The first chapters are primarily told by the two main characters but as the book progresses, extra voices are included. Instead of becoming a confusing riot of information, Gaitskill keeps the story flowing and the prose is so concise, there’s almost no moment where the reader is left behind. I know I’ve read books in the past where the story is told by two characters and it has been a mess. I have to confess, this is what I thought was going to happen with this book and it was wonderful to be proved wrong. It’s a testament to the skill of Gaitskill that she created this work.

The tone of the book is well measured and believable. There’s no moment where it becomes over sentimental or preachy. The emotional violence is well handled and the damage of each character is natural without being overwrought. I liked the manipulative Velvet and the way she created her relationship with Ginger. I liked that Ginger had awkward relationships with her mother and sister. Unlike some readers who state there was prejudice in Gaitskill’s writing, I didn’t find that. The author was almost completely absent from the book. It’s rare when you find a book that is written specifically for and by the characters. There was no Mary Sue element – no desire to prove how clever Gaitskill is compared to others. The story is so strong that it is a self-sufficient narrative and doesn’t need interpretation.

With all of that said, it’s not a book I would feel comfortable recommending to everyone. Adventurous readers, yes. My Mum? Maybe not. Regardless, if you decide to read The Mare you’re going to have an experience that you probably weren’t expecting.

 

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Best Novel – Sarah Perry

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I have nothing but admiration and awe for Sarah Perry. There are so many highlights I could spoil the entire book but instead I’ll share the most poignant part.

One of the characters is depicted sharpening a pencil with a razor and an almost tangible memory of my Grandad burst from the page. I remember he always had a pencil sharpened this way. It also made me remember the old, battered suitcase, full of felt pens and pencils that were kept for all the grandkids to use. I don’t know what happened to that. Thanks for the memory, Sarah. It makes the book so much more for me.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Essex Serpent Sarah Perry

Title: The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication: 27 May 2016

Rating: 5 stars

 

Summary: Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Review: I have nothing but admiration and awe for Sarah Perry. There are so many highlights I could spoil the entire book but instead I’ll share the most poignant part.

One of the characters is depicted sharpening a pencil with a razor and an almost tangible memory of my Grandad burst from the page. I remember he always had a pencil sharpened this way. It also made me remember the old, battered suitcase, full of felt pens and pencils that were kept for all the grandkids to use. I don’t know what happened to that. Thanks for the memory, Sarah. It makes the book so much more for me.

The Essex Serpent is one of my contenders for book of 2016.

(Read between 4-18 June 2016)

[Review] After Me Comes The Flood written by Sarah Perry

Tiflood perrytle: After Me Comes The Flood
Author: Sarah Perry
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication: 26 June 2014
Number of Pages: 288

Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Summary: Attempting to escape the heat, bookshop owner, John Cole places a closed until further notice sign in the window and heads north to his brothers home on the coast. The heat wave, 30 days long, has made him forgetful and he leaves behind his map and his phone and then his car breaks down. He decides to walk and seek help, little knowing where the decision will take him.

“John Cole! Is that you? It is you, isn’t it – it must be, I’m so glad. I’ve been waiting for you all day!”

The voice, calling him by name, belongs to Claire who takes him to the house and introduces him to the other inhabitants. Alex, her brother, Hester, the mother figure, Elijah, the priest who has lost his faith, Walker, mistrusting and silent and Eve, the pianist. A small group of people each attending to their own trials and demons. A group of people I felt, for the most part, I knew without any need to learn any more about them. John, in particular, became another Harriet (The Little Friend Donna Tartt) for me and it has been a long time, with many books between, since I have felt this.

“I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair at an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it’s dry as a husk and must’ve died long before I came.”

From this opening paragraph, a story of mystery and intrigue begins. Are the people who they say, are the people what they seem?

The striking element of this novel is the disembodied feeling that takes over early on. Readers are given clues to a time period, modern because of Cole forgetting his mobile phone but you could be forgiven for feeling you were in an era similar to Miss Marple (supported by the characters clothing on the cover) – and for me, this is where my imagination settled me. It seems some reviewers have found this difficult to reconcile but it was this disconnection from the “real” world I found most endearing. Who hasn’t wished, at some point in life, to escape to a time where life was “simpler”,  where the pace of life isn’t bound to the speed of the internet, the number of followers on Twitter, or any number of modern complaints.

Some reviews complain the characters are unrelatable, no character development occurs, no plot progresses the story and that nothing, ultimately, happens. For me, they have completely missed the point. In not knowing everything about the characters, in only being given access to small portions of their lives, desires etc, Perry continues the feeling of being disconnected. For me, this novel highlights how we have become a society of busy bodies. A society that no longer understands how to act privately but demands greater access to the same idea, a society that demands accountability for everything and hates the idea of people living simply, without self aggrandizing and self promotion.

Ultimately, these feelings and connections can be summed up with one perfect sentence;

“But it need not mean anything, I think – it’s not necessary to understand everything.”