What the Spellchecker Saw: Sarah Perry

I wrote a blog post some time ago in which I revealed the list of words I had added to my spellchecker’s dictionary while writing The Maker of Swans.

I was reminded of it when I saw this tweet from Sarah Perry. In a spirit of fellow feeling, I sent her a link to the piece. She might find it diverting, I suggested. Or distressing. Because these things can go either way.

To my delight (and, if I’m honest, much as I had hoped), Sarah was prompted to produce a list of her own, compiled during the writing of her wonderful novel, The Essex Serpent, which will be published in June. I’m reproducing the list here with Sarah’s permission.

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In my earlier post, I tried to describe what I find peculiarly fascinating about these word lists. What’s crucial, I think, is the peculiar mechanism by which they are created, this quiet salting away of eccentricities. The words we store in this way aren’t a representative sample, exactly, or not in the usual, statistical sense. But they are, like certain kinds of light, obliquely but starkly illuminating. You see things, etched in shadow on certain October evenings, that are all but invisible in the staring brilliance of a summer noon.

They are outliers, these words, much as we may gripe at their omission from Microsoft’s dictionaries. They are cherished oddities, hoarded for their rarity, their special lustre. And they are precious, of course. They are precious in the precise sense of being irreplaceable. Not one of these words could have been exchanged for any other.

But why these words, in particular? Poring over my own list felt furtive and radically unsavoury, like drinking my own wee. But since these are Sarah’s choices, the whole thing is above board. I can sit hunched over the specimen case for hours, sighing in contentment or hissing in envy. I can get my notebook out. I can classify things.

In some cases (like daybright or blueflowered), they are nonce words, neologisms borne of some small semantic or prosodic necessity known only to Sarah. There were (we must imagine) occasions when, discovering some minute fissure in the edifice of the language, she discerned the precise contours of the word that would fill it. Darking. There. Perfect.

Others, like the delightful unciform (an anatomical term meaning ‘hook-like’) and ergotism (poisoning induced by fungus-infected cereals) are truly obscure, words whose meanings we discover with a little throb of glee and carry away, Smaug-like, to deposit atop our glittering piles. All of these words, though, are in some degree out of the ordinary. They are archaic or bookish, fanciful or folkloric, impressionistic or clinical. They are excessive, in the very best sense of the word; they are the traces a writer left as she strained at the boundaries of everyday language.

Of course, the novel isn’t full of words like these; if it were, the effect would be unbearably cloying. In fact, they are stitched into its fabric with such unobtrusive care that I had no recollection of having encountered some of them. Nonetheless, this list is uncannily faithful to the book, a distillation of its essence.

The main character in The Essex Serpent, Cora Seaborne, is a remarkable creation. She is a restless and passionately curious autodidact. She is an amateur naturalist, in the Victorian tradition, and an inveterate collector of fossils. She is a widow, and zealously protective of her new-found autonomy, and yet she falls in love — extravagantly and inconveniently — with a recalcitrant country cleric.

Cora will become, I suspect, a widely beloved character, for these qualities and many others. And perhaps it is Cora, in particular, who is so immediately and vividly summoned by this list, Cora’s impatient and questing nature, her devotion to reason and inquiry, her joyous heterodoxy of spirit.

I was lucky enough to read a proof of The Essex Serpent a few weeks ago. If I hadn’t, though, this list alone would have done it. This list, more than any blurb or review, would have made me long to read it, to inhabit this world of verdigris and oakwoods, of samphire and lapis lazuli.

Now that I have, I can only offer my heartfelt commendation. The Essex Serpent is all of these things and more. It is a treasure, this book. It is daybright and noctilucent. It is starlike.


The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

This review originally appeared, in edited form, in The Spectator.

It is the fate of the second novel to be measured against the debut that it follows, a fate that becomes inescapable when that debut is met with acclaim (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or is held to exemplify some modish literary subgenre (‘gritty Scottish realism’, in Fagan’s case, a designation that was not only modish but also largely invented).

The Sunlight Pilgrims - CoverFagan was ill-served, in this regard, by reflexive comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But whereas the strenuous transgressiveness of Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language, to the extent that it was remarkable at all, was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and never subsumed her intentions in the way that Welsh’s has. Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear words. Far more noteworthy, for instance, was Fagan’s rigorously unsentimental and richly illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.

When eleven-year-old Stella Fairbairn, the central presence in The Sunlight Pilgrims, lapses into vulgarity, she is half-heartedly discouraged by her mother, Constance, who resorts (in a wry gesture by Fagan) to keeping a swear jar. Unlike The Panopticon, which imagined a contemporary dystopia of dysfunctional care homes and squalid flats, The Sunlight Pilgrims evokes a bracingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into a terrifyingly acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem; an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.

If a recurring preoccupation is evident, it is with the inner lives of the marginalised in the shadow of vast and indifferent forces. Stella, we learn, was once a boy named Cael. Her transition, though supported by the valiant and resourceful Constance, has not been entirely untraumatic. She is subjected to horrific bullying and institutional callousness. Denied the hormonal treatments she needs and unwilling to contemplate surgery, she struggles to construct for herself an attainable ideal of femininity. In a deeply touching scene, handled by Fagan with characteristic lightness of touch, Stella watches online porn featuring a trans actor. There is nowhere else, she reflects, where she can see ‘a body like her own having sex’.

Stella and Constance are joined in their caravan park by Dylan, who, until their recent deaths, ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his resolutely unconventional mother and grandmother. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news is filled with intimations of social collapse, these three are soon entwined in unlikely domesticity, finding in it the nearest thing to salvation that this intimately imagined and chillingly credible apocalypse has to offer.


The Sunlight Pilgrims is published by William Heinemann.

The North Water by Ian McGuire

An edited version of this review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

For as long as there have been novels, there have been novels of the sea. The eponymous hero of Robinson Crusoe, widely regarded as the first novel in English, is all but synonymous with the figure of the island castaway. Yet it is as a ‘mariner’ that he is introduced in that novel’s full title, and he undertakes not one but two ill-fated voyages before the one that leads him to his desert island.

51EM8LFgjRLFrom Defoe, the lineage of maritime fiction can be traced almost without interruption to the end of the twentieth century (the last complete novel in Patrick O’Brian’s much-loved Aubrey-Maturin series appeared in 1999), though its apotheosis, many would argue, was reached in 1851, with the publication of Moby-Dick. Among readers, clearly, there is an abiding appetite for tales of the sea, but that alone can hardly account for a continuity of tradition that has few if any equals among literary genres (military fiction, despite some superficial similarities, has had a much bumpier ride).

This longevity, surely, is due at least in part to our fascination with the sea itself, and in particular to its hold on the imagination of authors. For novelists, the sea is the gift that keeps on giving. For a start, there are its attractions as a setting. The sea, after all, does what no landscape can: it moves. One moment, it may be nothing more than scenery, while the next it is an inexorable force, sweeping mere human fates before it.

The sea can be much more than a backdrop, then, but it can also be less. For some writers, the sea is a canvas of seductive blankness, a surface from which the clutter of civilised existence has been scoured. Against such an emptiness, the dramatic force of a narrative is magnified, lending heroic proportions to its struggles. It is the latter approach that Ian McGuire favours in The North Water, a muscular but finely-wrought tale that satisfies traditional expectations while bringing to the genre a dark elegance of style and an unsparing vision of individual morality.

We are introduced first to Henry Drax, an itinerant harpooner animated only by his own savage compulsions and sustained by an implacable instinct for survival. He joins the crew of the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the Arctic. Her captain is complicit in a murky enterprise – we learn early on of a plot to wreck the ship for insurance money – and is not inclined to be choosy about who he takes aboard. This suits Drax nicely: He has just murdered and violated (in that order) a young boy and wishes to make himself scarce.

Also boarding the Volunteer is Patrick Sumner, a former army surgeon whose military career ended in disgrace during the siege of Delhi. For Sumner, as for Drax, an Arctic whaler is a place where few questions will be asked, where his misdeeds may go undiscovered. Unlike Drax, however, Sumner is burdened by his past. Although his moral instincts have been somewhat corroded, he is nonetheless deeply preoccupied by notions of wickedness and culpability. Drax, on the other hand, is untroubled by any such distractions. For the harpooner, ‘each new moment is merely a gate he walks through, an opening he pierces with himself’.

The stage is set, then, for just the kind of elemental confrontation that tradition demands. From the beginning, too, it is clear that it will take place amidst a sizeable cargo of philosophical baggage. Here again the precedents are well established; seascapes have always provided a canvas not only for grand struggles but for big ideas. But whereas Moby-Dick looked to Locke and Kant, the colours nailed to the Volunteer’s mast are unmistakably Nietzschean; even her name, with its echoes of volition and the will to power, seems slyly allusive.

In fact, the novel alerts us to its intentions in its opening words: ‘Behold the man’ (Ecce Homo was the title of Nietzsche’s final eccentric summation of his philosophical project). The man we are invited to behold is Henry Drax, and he is not a pretty sight. A creature of ‘fierce and surly appetites’, he is bestial and unreflecting in pursuit of his urges, yet he is capable too of dim epiphanies. His atrocities, he believes, are acts ‘of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations’ and he himself is a ‘wild, unholy engineer’, insights that remind us of Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’, those ‘investigators to the point of cruelty’ who have dispensed entirely with obsolete notions of good and evil.

But while its philosophical ambitions are at times overt, it would be wrong to give the impression that The North Water is weighed down by its big ideas. As a storyteller, McGuire has a sure and unwavering touch, and he has engineered a superbly compelling suspense narrative. Like Dr Stephen Maturin, Patrick O’Brian’s rather more upstanding ship’s surgeon, Sumner struggles to keep his nose out of the opium bottle. Once at sea, he holes up in his cabin, minds his own business and sets about depleting his own medicine chest. Drax is quick to take his measure, and soon guesses at the shadows in surgeon’s past. Sumner, though somewhat addled, is not entirely oblivious. When a cabin boy is found murdered and sodomised, Drax pins the blame on one of his shipmates. Roused from his torpor by the horrific nature of the crime, the surgeon sets about uncovering the truth.

The Volunteer and her crew, however, are soon overtaken by greater misfortunes. The plan to wreck the ship goes predictably awry, and when it does the crew must contend not only with the monster in its midst, but with the far greater brutality of the long Arctic winter. As the body count rises, the tattered morality that Sumner clings to begins to look forlorn. ‘Them’s just words,’ Drax tells him. ‘The law is just a name they give to what a certain kind of men prefer.’

As a stylist, too, McGuire is never less than assured. Though he keeps he keeps the prose lean for the most part, he allows himself occasional flourishes. While these occasionally misfire (the dockside air, perplexingly, has ‘a bathetic pong’), there are many instances of arresting brilliance. A musket shot to the head produces ‘a brief carnation of blood and gore’; a bear that Sumner pursues is lost in ‘the blizzard’s ashen iterations’.

The North Water is traditional to the last. There will be a sole survivor, of course, just as only Ishmael survived the destruction of the Pequod. It is by no means clear who this survivor will be, however, and the well-tuned plot keeps us guessing until the final pages. But McGuire’s deference to tradition is not excessive. He has produced a fine addition to the maritime canon, but one that revivifies it with a thoroughly modern acuity of style. He has established himself, too, as a writer of exceptional craft and confidence, one who is no doubt capable of approaching other genres and of making them entirely his own.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

We have come to expect more of nature writing than we once did. It tended, until recently, to come in handsomely produced and gift-friendly volumes, and to take a gently contemplative and often lyrical approach to its subject. It tended, too, to be the preserve of writers of a recognisable type (male, donnish, faintly druidical), leading the poet Kathleen Jamie to deride the cult of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’.

theoutrunAll that changed, of course, with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. While it was not without its precursors (Olivia Laing’s To the River, for instance, charts a similar confluence of personal and natural currents), its influence now seems inescapable. Macdonald demonstrated that nature writing can be passionately erudite and beautifully observed, but also viscerally intimate and inseparable from the rawness and disorder of our lived experience. Like Macdonald, who returned to falconry following a bereavement, Amy Liptrot approaches the natural world by way of the personal, fusing nature writing with a stark and moving memoir of addiction.

The child of southern migrants, Liptrot is raised on a farm on the Orkney ‘mainland’, as the largest of the islands is known. Like all incomers, they are regarded with benign scepticism by the locals. Orkney is an unforgiving place to establish a smallholding, and most southerners don’t last long. The family makes a go of it, however, and the childhood Liptrot sketches is for the most part wholesome and contented, if not entirely cloudless. Though her parents are loving and hardworking, her father suffers from manic depression and is prone to unpredictable behaviour. Her mother seeks solace in religion and joins a group of evangelical Christians. They will later separate, for reasons that are typically contested.

On the islands, the elements breed sturdiness. As a child, Liptrot ranges fearlessly over the ‘wind-scoured and treeless’ expanse of the farm, scrambling over its stone dykes and skirting its plunging cliffs. By the time she is eighteen, though, she has grown resentful of the muck and toil of life on the farm. Feeling the adolescent’s sense of confinement, even under the limitless Orcadian skies, she yearns for ‘the hot pulse of the city’.

London doesn’t disappoint. She falls in with a loose collective of friends. They are young or youngish, scraping by on the fringes. They talk about getting into publishing, making it in music or fashion. There are warehouse parties in Soho and Shoreditch, nightclubs that vanish within weeks of opening. There are drugs, of course, because this is London and they are young. And there is drinking. There is a lot of drinking.

These sequences are especially vivid. Liptrot recalls her early excesses with the wary nostalgia of the recovering addict, and evokes them with a kind of blurred intensity. A solvent-fuelled picnic in London Fields, is a welter of ‘limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet’; she feels the urge, walking home after a party, to ‘rub the city onto my skin…to inhale the streets’.

But this idyll of hedonism is short-lived. Liptrot’s drinking is out of control almost from the beginning, and her life in London soon lurches towards chaos. Her boyfriend moves out (she had, she reflects ‘squeezed the last love from him’), and she is unable to hold down even the menial temping jobs that have sustained her. Exhausted and despairing, she enters a recovery programme. Six months later, bruised and aimless but tentatively sober, she is home in Orkney.

Alert to their familiarity, perhaps, Liptrot dispenses with these preliminary events in eighty pages or so. There is the risk of tedium, too, in chronicling the subsequent stages of recovery. For the alcoholic, sobriety is a lifelong project. The addiction narrative, having traced the upward portion of its arc, threatens to peter out in a perpetually provisional blue sky. It is a challenge that must be overcome not only by the narrative, but by the recovering addict. What is life to consist of, now that it has been so thoroughly emptied out? How are all these days to be filled?

Back in Orkney, the emptiness is not merely metaphorical. ‘The sky gets bigger,’ Liptrot observes, ‘as the train travels further north.’ She seeks refuge in a cottage on the island of Papa Westray (known as ‘Papay’), a place even more northerly and remote than the island where she spent her childhood. The house is uninsulated, perched on a narrow strip of island and exposed on two sides to an often tumultuous sea. ‘It will be impossible to live here,’ she notes, ‘without being aware of the weather.’

For all its bleakness and isolation, Liptrot feels at home here. It is this intimacy with the elements, she begins to realise, that will form the basis of her salvation. Like many recovering addicts, she is eager to find new objects for her displaced compulsions. The islands themselves become her obsession; she studies their weather, their history and archaeology. At night there are the riches of the unpolluted northern skies. She becomes fixated on ever more northerly islands, travelling to Fair Isle and battling her way up the ‘preposterous ski slope’ of its Sheep Rock, as if obsessed by the very idea of extremity.

These digressions are engrossing in themselves, but we begin to glimpse a unifying vision. Although Liptrot’s style is superficially stark, eschewing the lyrical excesses derided by Kathleen Jamie, it belies a quiet relentlessness of ambition. With her almost manic attentiveness – to ocean currents, to cloud formations, to the processes of erosion – Liptrot seems intent on absorbing nothing less than an entire environment, in all its vastness and complexity. In the aftermath of an all-consuming addiction, there is something consoling, perhaps, in this sense of totality.

Recalling a photograph taken during her lost years, Liptrot reflects that she appeared ‘unfathomably, unquenchably sad’. Drinking was never the answer, of course, and the solace she sought for so long was always illusory. There is no answer, of course, but as this humane and compelling memoir shows, there are far more interesting questions.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

The review below originally appeared, in edited form, in The Irish Times.

412BJYKd0YLTed Hughes’ Crow marked his return to poetry following the suicide of Sylvia Plath, a cataclysm that can be felt in that collection’s violent rupturing of form. Borne of his obsession with Hughes, Max Porter’s debut appears at first to confront bereavement more directly. A woman has died suddenly. In their London flat, her husband and young sons cling to the disordered remnants of family life.

We hear their voices in alternating passages: Dad (the characters are not otherwise named) is immersed in grief, a faltering zombie of duty; the Boys, profoundly hurt, are children still, distracted and elliptical, orbiting a barely understood absence.

Enter Crow, an ancient trickster of inscrutable motives (as he was for Hughes), and here a superbly voiced embodiment of natural ferocity. Antic, capricious and fearsome, Crow nonetheless sets about defending this disturbed nest, urging its occupants like fledglings from their helplessness.

Porter has been daring in shaping this extraordinary book, but its force is in its almost unbearably proximate examination of loss. Like the small intimacies that Dad remembers, it pleads to be relived: ‘Again. I beg everything again.’

Review: Experience by Martin Amis

The review below was originally published in Red Pepper some time in 2000. I came across it recently while reminiscing with the aid of The Wayback Machine.

The publication in 1995 of his novel The Information was accompanied by a wave of journalistic tattle perhaps unprecedented for a British novelist. The scoop, the skinny was this: Martin Amis had forsaken his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh. So what? Well, Kavanagh happened to be married to none other than Julian Barnes, Amis’s fellow novelist and close friend. Still unimpressed? Get this: he ditched Kavanagh in favour of Andrew Wylie, a shark-like figure famed and feared in the publishing industry for the remorseless tenacity with which he pursues ever more lucrative deals for his charges. The clincher, though, was not the £500,000 advance Wylie was rumoured to have secured for The Information. No, the real sensation was what Amis was said to have spent a dizzying fraction of the money on. Wait for it.

He got his teeth fixed.

The story, it seemed, had everything. It had, at any rate, the serviceable trinity of treachery, avarice and vanity, sins of sufficiently wide currency to propel even a literary novelist into the 48-point notoriety of the tabloids. But it had, of course, been routinely distorted. For some, there was white-hot catharsis in this tale of intellectual might succumbing to the most ordinary of weaknesses, and no nuance that might intervene would survive.

In Experience, Amis sets about coolly subtracting from the scandals to reveal a version of events that conforms to his observation, in an early passage, that life offends the novelist with ‘its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity’. His horrendous dental overhaul, for instance, was provoked not by a mid-life quest after an imago with impeccable pearly-whites, but by the discovery, after years of timorous procrastination, of a tumour.

But the book is no mere screed of vindication. Amis’s press ordeal was as quotidian as it was injurious, and its rebuttal is not unnecessarily protracted. Nor is he so susceptible to slight as to have been sent lurching to the bureau by the teeth affair alone. In approaching the autobiographical dredge of the psyche, his main preoccupations are disarmingly universal. ‘I do it,’ he writes, ‘because I feel the same stirrings that everyone else feels’.

The best of you is still here, and I still have it.

If one urge is foremost, it is Amis’s apparently straightforward wish to commemorate his late father. Kingsley Amis, of course, was himself a celebrated novelist; Amis fils introduces their relationship as ‘a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son’. Here is a writer of formidable gifts, then, paying tribute to another, but here too is a son who bore a complicated love for a father who could oscillate between gregarious hilarity and remote petulance. Nor can the strands be fully separated. The younger Amis has an intimate knowledge of his father’s œuvre, and his close readings (which are admittedly partisan, but far from uniformly reverent) often give way, without sharp demarcation, to anecdote or reminiscence, as the child reclaims the vanished parent by means of this purest of communions. ‘The best of you is here,’ he affirms, ‘and I still have it’.

A loss that could not be mediated by a literary legacy was that of Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington. Lucy’s remains were discovered in the house of Frederick West in 1994. She had disappeared in 1973. The absence of this adored figure, pensive and gifted, recurs in Amis’s recollections like an ache. The possible magnitude of her suffering at West’s hands haunts him. He is much concerned with innocence and its extinction (he has long insisted that Paradise Lost is ‘the central poem in our language’), and Lucy Partington, whose innocence was cancelled out by its appalling opposite, becomes the focus of these meditations.

Towards the beginning of his memoir, Martin Amis, a writer of unique power to polarise opinion with his knowing stylistic swagger, lets it be known that he has undertaken to write, for the first time, ‘without artifice’. He does not mean, of course, that he will abandon all formality and hose the reader with unchecked consciousness. In fact, Experience is more formally exquisite than ever, with instances of the familiar linguistic brilliance almost distracting in their frequency. What he means is that he will abstain from the comforting devices of fiction and confront life in all its crazed variety. He has done so, and produced a work of seductive candour and considerable emotional weight.