First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.

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Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’ 

As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.

Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).

First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.

 

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.

Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?

The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.

Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Interesting footnote. Whilst looking for a jacket image for this review, I discovered that there was once a very sweet-looking pub called The Essex Serpent near Covent Garden. It is now a shoe shop. That’s a shame…


The Essex Serpent opens with Cora Seaborne, newly widowed but not unhappy about this – indeed, the novel is punctuated with memories of Michael’s cruelties small and large, from plucking several hairs from her head and leaving her with a small bald spot, to pressing a candlestick against her collarbone hard enough to scar. Given a new lease on life, she departs with her devoted companion Martha and her obsessive son Francis for Colchester to look for fossils, inspired by the fossil hunter Mary Anning. There, to her delight, rumours abound of the mythical Essex Serpent, picking off the locals one by one on the Essex coast in Aldwinter. Cora is convinced that it could be a new species and determines to track it down. When she arrives in Aldwinter, she meets the vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to crush rumours of the Essex Serpent, seeing it as a distraction from real faith. Having initially been very suspicious of the other, Cora and Will develop an extremely close friendship – agreeing on nothing, yet inexorably drawn to each other.

This is primarily, for me, a book about love, and all the forms it can take, from friendship, and its ensuing friendly jealousies, to romantic love, requited or otherwise. Will is devoted in his love for his beautiful wife Stella, yet the deep friendship and love that builds between himself and Cora is something different and indescribable. Luke Garrett, the doctor and Cora’s close friend, loves Cora unrequitedly, but eventually finds solace in his friendship with a colleague. It is also about how love can motivate us, and change us – from George Spencer, who becomes an ardent defender of slum dwellers because of his love for the working class and socialist Martha.

It’s also a book about perceptions, and how we make assumptions and interpret signs as we wish to. Cora and Will have almost hilarious preconceptions of what the other will be like before becoming fast friends. And of course, everyone has their own ideas about the eponymous Serpent and what it means.It’s also about our own perceptions. Many of the characters are initially set up as Victorian stereotypes, from the working-class Martha, who is educated and an ardent socialist, to Stella Ransome, set up as the beautiful and frail, not-long-for-this-world vicar’s wife, but who subverts our expectations.

The Essex Serpent is beautifully written and warmly funny book, with the most stunning and evocative descriptions of nature and landscape – which has made the prospect of a holiday in Essex oddly tempting. It’s a clever and enchanting story about people, how we function and interact with each other, and with the world around us.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is out now, published by (appropriately) Serpent’s Tail

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

A confession. Not having been alive at the time of the 1976 heatwave, part of me always sort of resents books about them. We had one in London around 10 years ago – my father had to stand next to the drain with a bucket when we were showering so there was water for the plants, and Ken Livingstone recommended we didn’t flush loos ‘unless necessary’. Ripe ground for fiction surely? But I digress. This resentment doesn’t stop me actually enjoying the books in question, it’s just a small insight into my personal follies. 


The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a book about mysteries, about how communities draw together, and the secrets our neighbours keep. When Mrs Creasey goes missing, ten year old Grace and her loyal friend Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. Following advice from the vicar (sort of), they set out uncover as Brownies to ‘find God’ in their neighbours’ houses, on the logic that if they find Him, Mrs Creasey will return. Periodically, the perspective changes to that of the neighbours: Mrs Forbes, bullied by her sinister and controlling husband; Eric Lamb, still mourning the death of his wife; and Mr Creasey himself, who has withdrawn into obsessiveness following the disappearance of his wife. And it’s through them that we get to know Mrs Creasey. In addition, mysteries skip through the pages: a baby who was kidnapped many years ago, an unexplained fire, and suspicious meetings held at the British Legion. And Walter Bishop, one of the neighbours who keeps himself to himself, suspected by everyone of various misdemeanours, and shunned and persecuted accordingly. Is Walter Bishop one of the goats of the title, banished by the Lord for not looking after him? And who are the sheep? 

I found this a wonderful book to read, captivating, perceptive, funny, and with beautiful turns of phrase, such as that Mrs Morton is ‘rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.’ Grace is joy to read as a narrator – convincingly childlike, as she bosses Tilly around, and muddles through, and yet innocently wise as she observes the neighbours’ hypocrisies and absurdities. For instance, in the village hall following church, ‘No one mentioned Jesus. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked in, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Artic roll.’ A very special debut. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now in paperback from Borough Press. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 


Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet. 

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

The increasing extinction of various species in the UK and around the world is something that preoccupies me immensely. When listening to Sarah Hall speak about The Wolf Border at the Balham Literary Festival earlier this year,  I think everyone in the room, felt captivated by this possibility that wolves could return the UK. Even if there hadn’t been a collective deflated sigh when she said that ‘rewilding’ was extraordinarily unlikely, the disappointment in the air was palpable. But reading The Wolf Border, I was able to forget that, and lose myself in a passionate, intelligent, and completely enthralling story about motherhood, family, class, power, nature, and of course the logistics of bringing wolves back to the UK.


For almost a decade, Rachel Caine has lived in Idaho working on a wolf reservation, having fled her past and her family. On a rare visit to her dying mother, she also visits the Earl of Annerdale who wants her to run a unique project – he plans to reintroduce wolves to his estate in the Lake District. Rachel declines – she enjoys her work in Idaho, and she doesn’t completely trust the Earl. But shortly after her return to the US, unforeseen circumstances will see her change her mind and return to the UK to accept the offer. 

Sarah is a prickly character, suspicious and uncomfortable around people, and almost self-satisfied in her assumptions of those around her. Throughout however, her worldview will be questioned, occasionally reinforced, but also challenged as she attempts a reconciliation with her estranged brother, begins a relationship she didn’t expect and faces the equally unexpected challenge of motherhood. This is a wild novel, uplifting, lyrically written but also thrilling. It’s impossible not to feel captivated by the vivid descriptions of outdoors, to root for the wolves Merle and Ra, but also for Rachel. As the story builds however, the feeling of foreboding can’t be shaken off, though when the blow does come, it is from the most unlikely of sources.

The Wolf Border came out over a year ago, but feels startlingly relevant now. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Scottish independence vote, with politicians renamed, but very recognisable. I can’t have been the only reader to chuckle when we’re introduced to Caleb Douglas, the Scottish First Minister, a ‘round-faced, heavy-chinned man with thinning hair […] with the look of a retired boxer.’ Also, as the rewilding project attracts protestors and detractors, Rachel attempts to reason with them but soon determines to ignore them, reasoning ‘the fearful will always be afraid, the ideological will believe until the last shred of evidence is offered. Only time will prove them wrong.’ I read this in the build up to the election and reasoned that things could be worse… I wonder whether Sarah Hall could ever have suspected to what extent we would be living in a ‘post-truth’ world by now. 

This may be one of the finest books I’ve read this year, and this has been a good year for books for me! If you were late to The Wolf Border game like me, don’t let it pass you by and read it when you can. 

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall is out now, published by Faber & Faber. 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

I have read most of Ian McEwan’s novels, and whilst nothing really quite beats Atonement for me, I look forward to each and every one of his new releases. And I was very intrigued by Nutshell, which features as its lead protagonist a foetus.

‘So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.’ 


The unnamed narrator of Nutshell is, as we know from all the advance publicity, a foetus who bears a startling resemblance to a certain indecisive Danish prince – there is even a clever nod to ‘To be or not to be.’ He is aware that his mother Trudy, who he nonetheless loves fiercely, is being unfaithful to his father with ‘Claude.’ He equally fiercely dislikes Claude, as much for the fact that he is a common, witless boor, as much for the slight against his father, who is a poet. Claude and Trudy are plotting to rid themselves of his father, whilst our narrator listens fretfully and wonders whether he can prevent it.

I found every word spoken by our unusual narrator thrilling. He is a frightful snob, making judgements about the (copious) wine his mother drinks, tolerating the ‘puerile’ World Service, holding forth about identity politics, which is strangely entertaining in a foetus. But as masterfully written as Nutshell is, it’s also hugely pacey. Will the lovers succeed in their plotting? Where will it lead them? I found this modern interpretation of Hamlet totally captivating, right up to its explosive ending.