The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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

Do you think you know London? Hester White, who narrates Laura Carlin’s debut novel, confronts us first with this question. Hester did once, or thought she did. Raised in a parsonage in the Lincolnshire Wolds, she would listen raptly when her father returned from his travels, imagining a wonderland of ‘wherries and steamers’, where one might ‘take a seat on Shillibeer’s omnibus…stopping at The Unicorn for beefsteak with oyster sauce’.

The Wicked ComethBut Hester’s father, by the time we encounter her, is long dead, and her childish illusions have been abandoned. Orphaned at eleven, and lacking better prospects, she has been taken in by the family of his former gardener. Consigned to insalubrious lodgings among the backstreets of Bethnal Green, Hester now counts ‘foglers, lifters and murderers’ among her neighbours. Her London, she assures us, ‘isn’t the one Papa visited, or the one you might think you know’.

The year is 1831, and the streets Hester has come to know are lightless and filthy, teeming with thieves and vagrants. With its chipper rogues and multifarious squalor, it is, perhaps, a rather more familiar milieu than Hester seems to think, but it is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind. But for our heroine, understandably, it has few attractions. Her ‘Uncle Jacob’ is a drunkard and a lecherous pig, her ‘Aunt Meg’ a figure of dubious charity. The urchins of the locality, meanwhile, have been disappearing with unsettling frequency. Entrusted one morning with the household’s last shilling, Hester seizes her chance.

Hester’s London is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind.

Her escape hinges on the vaguest of plans, and gets off to an inauspicious start when she falls under the wheels of carriage. Its occupant proves to be an imperious young physician named Calder Brock, who scoops her up without a word and deposits her at his Westminster townhouse. There she is fussed over by servants while her injuries are tended to, and if she is suitably awed by her good fortune, she is also understandably curious. Just who is this Mr Brock, and why has she been so richly favoured?

His explanation is reassuring, if mildly improbable. Mr Brock, it transpires, is a member of the much-feared London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, but favours enlightened methods and means to demonstrate to his colleagues ‘that even those from the gutter can be educated’. Hester plays along – she was educated by her father, but knows when she is on to a good thing – and is promptly whisked off to Waterford Hall, family seat of the Brocks, there to convalesce in the country air while undergoing an improving course of instruction.

All, needless to say, is not quite as it seems. There are dark mutterings among the servants, and Hester has misgivings of her own. A young scullery maid has joined the ranks of the missing, while Rebekah Brock, her benefactor’s sister, is said to show an excessive fondness for certain of her ladies’ maids.

But it is the enigmatic Rebekah, Hester soon learns, who is to tutor her in the ways of gentility. Hester proves an apt pupil, and the two soon establish a hesitant rapport. Intimations of a deeper attraction grow, but a misunderstanding intervenes before any declarations can be made. The obligatory reversal of fortune follows, and by the time Hester returns to London, sunk in dejection and beset by deepening mysteries, all the trappings of a satisfying melodrama have been assembled.

And this, to be clear, is no bad thing. After all, Wilkie Collins fashioned some of the most glittering entertainments of the nineteenth century from these very materials. But before Wilkie Collins, there was the penny dreadful, and it is to the tawdry pleasures of that genre that Carlin’s tale – with its unmistakable echoes of popular novels like The Mysteries of London – pays its most overt homage. The results are splendidly diverting, for the most part, but as in all such exercises, there is the looming danger of pastiche. While a degree of staginess goes with the territory, Carlin is inclined to trowel on the period mannerisms (no one hurries, in this novel, when they can ‘make haste’), and to couch the most ordinary passages in such an excess of descriptive upholstery that the reader feels threatened at times with suffocation. In one scene of domestic contentment, ‘the repast is plated’ while ‘the fire is obediently giving off heat’, which is not only cloying but faintly perplexing. By dint of sheer exuberance, though, this spirited and highly readable debut makes such excesses seem forgivable, leaving us a little bloated, in the end, but certainly not unsatisfied.

The Wicked Cometh is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

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

If some literary fairy godmother had intervened in its fate, she could hardly have engineered a more gratifying outcome than the real-life reception of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. Garlanded by critics (including this one) and nominated for several major prizes, it has also been embraced by readers to a degree that – given its outwardly austere subject matter – could hardly have been taken for granted.

9780008235659The arrival of The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece that first appeared in serial form on BBC Radio 4, suggests a certain confidence in this public enthusiasm, yet even those readers who admired the original novel may wonder if this new volume, appearing only eight months after its predecessor, is deserving of their attention.

Such doubts are quickly dispelled. Broadcast over fifteen episodes, and billed as ‘perspectives’ on the central events of the novel, The Reservoir Tapes revisits the small community in rural Derbyshire from which thirteen-year-old Becky Shaw disappeared. We hear first from Charlotte, the missing girl’s mother – or rather, we don’t. The arresting opening episode takes the form of an interview, but the transcript has been redacted so that only the halting and fragmentary questions remain. ‘I know this is difficult,’ the anonymous interviewer says. ‘I wasn’t implying.’ But she is, of course, and her prompting is so precisely shaded with suggestion and insinuation that Charlotte’s wounded and flinching presence is conjured without a word.

The effectiveness of such techniques is assured, in part, by McGregor’s uncanny ear for the tics and cadences of everyday speech. In the novel, his lucent and graceful descriptive passages competed for our attention, but these pieces confine themselves to the characters’ own accounts, lending them the documentary fascination of true crime and a suspense that depends – as in that genre – on the omissions and obfuscations of witnesses; on what they insinuate about others and what they reveal, knowingly or otherwise, about themselves.

Their lapses are subtle at first. Recalling a hike he led, a man notes that a group of girl guides ‘swayed when they walked, with the weight’. It might be nothing, this detail, but we begin to wonder. An elderly bachelor helps a young boy to fix his bicycle, then invites him in to ‘get scrubbed up’. The man will not let him leave until his hands are entirely clean.

These intimations become increasingly unsettling. A woman falls abruptly silent when her husband raises his hand. (‘Like getting ready to swat a fly.’) A sheep farmer assisting in the search is recognised in a TV news interview by a sex worker who encountered him years before, and who recalls an incident of naked brutality and one that revealed, perhaps, the shadowy contours of pathology.

In ‘Clive’s Story’, the most unnerving of these pieces, the same elderly bachelor is visited by the police. Questioned about his encounter with the young boy, he lapses into a rambling monologue, and what follows is a masterclass in the gentle escalation of unease. From banal ruminations on reservoir maintenance, Clive veers into a creepy rhapsody on the marvels of anatomy, reflecting on the graceful musculature of swimmers before offering his thoughts – and at this point we are wondering just how much of this monologue is internal – on the miraculous intricacy to be observed in a skinned rabbit.

‘We are well made,’ he muses, recalling his scripture at the queasy climax of the passage. ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’

These stories, too, are fearfully and wonderfully made, though it is difficult to articulate just what they add to the experience of Reservoir 13. That book that was widely praised for its lightness of touch, and for the immersive effect of its sparing accretion of detail. These pieces are certainly not unsubtle, but whereas our suspicions, in the novel, were formed from no more than glancing impressions, we are presented here with much starker portraits, especially of men, and there is a heightened amplitude to our sense of dread. If the subject matter were different, we might be tempted to conclude otherwise, but coming as it does at the end of a year of grim revelations about male abusers, the fresh ‘evidence’ collected here has about it a weight of necessity.

It brings us no closer to ‘solving’ the novel’s mystery, but that was never the point. In any small town, these stories remind us, slithering nests will lurk in the shuttered hearts of men; in any small town, for as long as their secrets are kept, women and girls will suffer at their hands. This much, dismally, is no mystery at all.

Collected Toaster Settings, 2015 – 2017

These collected toaster settings are drawn from an occasional Twitter series. They are presented here without comment, not least because I have no idea how to account for them.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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

‘Ordinary things,’ the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, ‘have always seemed numinous to me.’ Jon McGregor may not share Robinson’s preoccupation with the divine, but there are few writers whose work has more consistently affirmed the luminous dignity of the everyday. His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, took as its subject an unnamed city street and the inner lives of its residents. Panoptic and quietly rhapsodic, its very title seemed to announce his intentions as a writer. ‘If you listen, you can hear it,’ it began. ‘The city, it sings.’

And sing it did. There was no shortage of beauty in this early work, though its painterly effects tended at times to eclipse its characters, presenting not so much human interactions as exquisite tableaux vivants. McGregor has long since learned to temper these excesses, honing his lyrical gifts and yielding the foreground to his characters. His growing stature has not gone unrecognised. Longlisted twice for the Booker prize, he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs. Even by the standards of his mature work, however, McGregor’s latest novel is a remarkable achievement.


Set in an unnamed town in the English midlands, Reservoir 13 seems at first to tread familiar ground. A young girl has gone missing, and in the darkness of a midwinter morning the search is beginning. ‘It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked.’

The missing girl, Rebecca Shaw, had been on a family holiday and had formed only a few tenuous friendships. In the photograph that is circulated her face is ‘half-turned away’. She is remembered variously as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’, an elusive and prismatic presence in the town’s collective consciousness. Most people hardly knew her, but rumours are repeated. Stories are told. Spring arrives, and still Rebecca has not been found.

Life goes on. It is a comforting truism, something we tell ourselves in the aftermath of shocking or inexplicable events. Yet to a writer of McGregor’s particular gifts, the banal can present invigorating challenges. Life does go on, undeniably, but how? How do we absorb events like these, and how do they alter us?

To answer these questions, McGregor returns to the broad social canvas of his first novel, but his undertaking here is far more ambitious. The author himself posted a partial dramatis personae on Twitter that ran to eighty-odd entries. Many are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run, or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets.

McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference.

At times the narrative drifts apart from human company altogether, pausing to observe the foraging of fox cubs or to mark some small increment in the progress of the seasons: ‘The sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.’ Descriptive writing of this kind is often praised for its ‘arresting’ beauty, yet these passages are remarkable precisely because they do not halt the reader’s momentum. Indeed, McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference. Fluid and fastidious, its sparing loveliness feels deeply true to its subject. There are moments, as in life, of miraculous grace, but no more than that.

There is beauty, likewise, in the moors and in the beech woods that surround the town, but this is no mere idyll. Here too the life that persists is driven by animal necessity. Unfledged blackbirds are taken by crows. Goldcrests feed in the churchyard yews. We see summers end (‘the butterflies rose like ash on the breeze and the ice-cream vans still appeared’) and winters encroach again (‘the sheep were nicotine-yellow against the fresh snow’). The missing girl is spoken of still, as the years pass. There are occasional ‘sightings’, though these are no longer taken seriously. She recedes in the town’s memory, but never quite vanishes. Suspicions arise (as when a school caretaker is found in possession of child abuse images), that may come to nothing.

It is a mark of greatness in a work of art that its effects, though profound, are not easily accounted for. Reservoir 13 is not a crime novel, at least in the traditional sense, and its central mystery is more than just a procedural puzzle. We do not come to know Rebecca Shaw, but we feel in the end that her life has been given a solemn and particular weight, its traces documented until they are too faint to be seen. In her absence, the swallows come and go. People marry or move away. There are moments of sadness, of squalor, of indelible beauty. Look, this humane and tender masterpiece is saying. This is what becomes of us. This is what remains. Life goes on.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

This review originally appeared in the Guardian.

Since A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, we have seen a recurrent vogue for novels in which contemporary and historical narratives are interleaved. It is a device that has been put to many uses, but it has proved especially attractive to writers who, like Byatt, are given to flourishes of erudition and who are drawn to its potential for formal experimentation. One manifestation of this has been a trend towards increasing complexity, leading to the emergence of what might be termed the ‘novel of ingenuity’, whose proliferating timelines (as in the recent fiction of David Mitchell) provide the readiest index of its ambitions.

chmcr9iucaaaituThe Countenance Divine contents itself with four, interweaving a near-contemporary narrative with three distinct historical strands. In 1999, introverted computer programmer Chris Davidson is shoring up rickety software against the ‘Millennium Bug’, a doom that now appears impossibly quaint. It is a humdrum existence, described in an oddly affectless tone: ‘Chris liked his job. It was hard work and the hours were long, but he was very good at it.’

But Chris, we quickly realise, is not quite what he seems. On a whim, he buys a strange wooden puzzle from a market trader. As he tinkers with this ‘Practical Rebus’, he is plagued by strange thoughts: that he has been alive for hundreds of years; that the city is on fire; that he has been chosen for some special purpose.

At the office, Chris keeps up appearances. As the millennium looms and fears of economic and civil chaos grow, he beavers away on lines of neglected computer code. His inner life, however, is in turmoil, and his visions have taken a frankly apocalyptic turn: ‘The world was about to end, and it was all his fault.’

Before it can, though, we find ourselves in the London of 1888, amid the livid horrors of the Whitechapel murders. Taking the infamous ‘From hell’ letter as his starting point, Hughes presents a cache of imagined correspondence by the same hand, in which the putative Ripper gives his account of the remaining murders and alludes, in darkly cryptic terms, to his instructions from a ‘Mr Blake’ (who has, incidentally, made him a gift of a now-familiar ‘puzzle toy’).

Hughes, who has worked for many years as an actor, has an exquisite ear for diction.

This sequence, though disturbing, is a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Hughes (who has worked for many years as an actor) has an exquisite ear for diction, and for all the dismal savagery of the acts his Ripper recounts, it is the coarse verisimilitude of his verbal tics that makes him truly terrifying. ‘Ile set you down on the ground,’ he writes, ‘nise and gentle.’

The Ripper’s ‘Mr Blake’, it transpires, is none other than William Blake. We encounter him in 1790, as he laboriously engraves his own tiny print run of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (whose formative visions, to preserve his satisfying chronological schema, Hughes locates in 1777). Blake, too, is brought to life with extraordinary assurance. We are shown not only the fervent visionary, but also the playful Dissenter and, less familiarly, the mercurial but tender husband.

Hughes has done his textual scholarship too, though he stitches it into his narrative without undue showiness. Blake’s visions, for instance, are announced by ‘a hot, gnawing chatter in his toe’, a detail that echoes his epic poem, Milton, in which the spirit of that revered poet enters Blake’s body by way of his foot. Similarly, when the remains of Milton are disinterred (and here, again, Hughes hinges his tale on historical events), Blake secures possession of one of his ribs, fashioning from it a homunculus in which Milton is, rather wearily, reanimated. This is every bit as outlandish as it sounds, yet it is, to be fair, a thoroughly Blakean outlandishness (homunculi were apt to appear in his engravings), and such are the verve and conviction of Hughes’ vision that we accept it with hardly a raised eyebrow.

In 1666, meanwhile, a blind and disconsolate Milton is racing against time to see his great epic published. Though he is no longer in immediate danger, the Restoration has left him with few friends. Unlike Blake, the convictions of his youth have deserted him, and his dream of an English New Jerusalem is in ruins. His prophecies have not been forgotten, however, and those who cling to them are now scheming against him. In the ashes of the Great Fire of London, we begin to glimpse the grand design that is unfolding across the centuries.

All of this may sound rather daunting; this is, it must be said, an intricate and densely allusive novel. Yet for all the seriousness of its meditations on literary heritage and millenarian theology, The Countenance Divine is never less than superbly stimulating. It is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent.

What the Spellchecker Saw: Amy Liptrot

What the Spellchecker Saw is an occasional series of posts in which I examine the contents of writers’ spellcheckers. Specifically, I look at their custom dictionaries, or the words they’ve added in the course of writing a particular book. This may sound unpromising, but as I tried to explain in my original post, these word lists are fascinating artefacts of the creative process; they offer, I think, a uniquely revealing insight into a writer’s language and ways of thinking.

Following Sarah Perry’s guest appearance in the last post, I’m delighted to have a new word list from another extraordinary writer to pore over. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which was published to great acclaim in January, is both a memoir of addiction and homecoming and an illuminating study of our complex relationships with the natural world.

I reviewed The Outrun for The Irish Times, and praised it for the humaneness and candour of its account of addiction and recovery. What I admired most, though, was not so much its sense of place – a description that seems inadequate in this instance – but rather its primacy of place. Although Amy’s return to Orkney is central to her recovery, it is no mere backdrop. She is concerned with the personal significance of place, but is also deeply preoccupied with its physical constitution, with the substance and topology of her Orkney home and with the forces of all kinds – geological, climatic, economic – that act on it.

The Orkney of The Outrun, then, is both a childhood home (with all the attendant emotional complexity) an immense laboratory of personal discovery. This gives the book both an emotional rootedness and an exhilarating intellectual range. Both are discernible, I think, in Amy’s absorbing word list. In words like rockpools and beachcombing, we glimpse the island home she ranged over as a child, while cartological and the splendidly exotic islomaniacs hint at her later fascination with mapping its shape and extent.


There is evidence, too, in words like moonbows, of Amy’s interest in astronomical and atmospheric phenomena, and of a curiosity that extends to the migratory patterns of birds (geolocators), to plate tectonics (faultline, though it may serve a metaphorical purpose, occurs here in a refreshingly literal sense) and to marine biology (the magnificent hydromedusaeamong my personal favourites from this list, refers to a subclass of aquatic invertebrates).

These are fascinating specimens, and very much in the spirit of the book, but perhaps the richest of this list’s treasures are in its lavish scattering of Orcadian dialect. In previous posts on this subject, I’ve mentioned the intriguing way in which these custom dictionaries seem to capture the essence of a writer’s individual habits of language. In this case, Amy’s idiolect is enriched by the language of Orkney, itself a fascinating confluence of Scots English and Norn, the North Germanic language that was spoken there until the 15th century.

These are words to be savoured for their sounds alone, but for most of us they do necessitate a glossary. One is provided at the beginning of The Outrun, and I’ve reproduced some of those definitions here. If you haven’t read the book already, you may well find (as I did) that these words – the glint and heft of them, their commanding and incantatory beauty – are all the invitation you need.

haar: sea fog

hillyans: mythical hill folk

holm: offshore islet

kye: cattle

lum: chimney

muckle: big

noust: hollow for storing small boats

peedie: small

selkie: seal

spoot: razor clam

teeick: lapwing

tystie: black guillemot





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.