The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Book review by Melanie Cutting

British author Sarah Perry’s second book is an immensely, intensely satisfying read, containing all— or at least most of— the elements I look for in a novel:  just the right amount of action; genuine (as opposed to manipulative) emotion; a suspenseful mystery; diverse and engaging characters; humour; an exotic locale; fascinating information previously unknown to me; and, perhaps most importantly, a beautifully fluid writing style that evokes the time and place perfectly.  In short, I really loved this book, something I thought I’d never say about a work of historical fiction!

It is certainly a credit to the considerable story-telling skills of its author that this book captivates the reader from the very first of its 400-plus pages, and holds us in thrall throughout.   Set in 1893 Essex County, situated in southeast England between London and the North Sea, the book opens with a wonderfully atmospheric passage introducing both the Blackwater estuary and the mood that permeates the story. “He thinks he sees—is certain he sees—the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone…There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time — implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.  Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last…yes, all along, it’s been there waiting, and at last it’s found him out. But then the wind lifts and tugs the covering cloud, and the shy moon shows her face.” The Essex Serpent, or at least the idea of it, has haunted this area for over 200 years, much like the Loch Ness monster to the north.  Rumours abound about its sighting, but the mystery persists. Local clergyman William Ransome is at pains to dispel the mounting fear among his Aldwinter parishioners, but it is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, his wife, the ethereally beautiful Stella, is unwell, and growing steadily worse.  Enter recently widowed Cora Seaborne, with her somewhat challenging son Francis, accompanied by Cora’s companion and former nanny Martha.  Although not exactly a “merry widow”, it is clear that the marriage was not a happy one, and Cora is delighted to be away from her luxurious life in London and its memories of her remote and occasionally sadistic husband.  An amateur paleontologist, Cora finds the area to be a paradise of fossils, and one in which she can dress comfortably in boots and trousers, hiking to her heart’s content in towns with such evocative names such as Chelmsford, Clacton-on-Sea, and World’s End. In due time she meets Reverend  Ransome, and they begin a friendship that seems to centre on spirited debates about the merits of religion versus science. Despite their obvious spiritual and intellectual differences, and the fact that Will Ransome is a happily married husband and father of two, he and Cora are soon experiencing the giddy elation of forbidden love, albeit disguised as friendship.  

Elevating the story well above what might have been a mere Harlequin romance type of tale are the author’s lyrical prose, her cast of supporting characters, and the many parallels she draws between the Victorian era in Great Britain, and our own 21st century reality. First, the supporting characters: Dr. Luke Garrett, aka The Imp, a London physician and friend of Cora, who is far beyond his time in practicing “gonzo”, experimental medicine; Martha, the bisexual ex- nanny and budding feminist/labour union activist; Francis, Cora’s quirky and withdrawn (read: autistic) teenage son, with whom Cora struggles to establish a loving relationship; Dr. George Spencer, Luke’s faithful friend and less adventurous medical colleague; Will Ransome’s children, 8 year old John and 12 year old Joanna, and her flighty friend Naomi who seek out adventure despite the looming threat of the Essex Serpent; the wealthy but kindly couple Charles and Katherine Ambrose who have introduced Cora to her newfound life in Essex;  cranky eccentric Charles Cracknell, whose constant companions are his goats Gog and Magog, and the earwigs who have found a permanent home in his favourite coat; Edward Burton, the budding architect and grateful recipient of Luke Garrett’s groundbreaking surgical technique that has saved his life and led to his introduction to Martha; and last but not least Stella, Ransome’s sickly wife, who sees her world in shades of blue, and seems to get more lovely as she becomes more gravely ill. Although apparently aware of the growing feelings of attachment between Will and Cora, Stella shows some modern-day forebearance in this regard, and openly encourages their companionship, knowing that her illness, which turns out to be tuberculosis (consumption), will be removing her from this earthly plane sooner rather than later.

Two important questions infuse the story: first, will Cora and Will consummate their feelings despite the mitigating circumstances, and second, is the Essex Serpent real or a creature of myth? How, then, to explain the mysterious disappearances and erratic behaviour of the townsfolk? Only time will tell…

The book is divided into four parts, each with a heading drawn from the actual 1669 pamphlet Strange News Out of Essex, which brought the “presence” of the serpent to public attention.  The book is further subdivided into the months January through November, a handy way to keep track of the action. Another literary technique used to excellent effect by the author is the inclusion of several chapters in the form of letters between the key players.

The Essex Serpent was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and was named Waterstone’s 2016 Book of the Year.  It is available from the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.

 

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James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans

Definitely an Oldie – but still a Goodie?

by James Wilson

Though hard to believe today, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was the most widely read American novel for over 100 years. Only Gone with the Wind, in 1936, knocked it from the top shelf (Gone with the Wind, incidentally, remains the second favourite book of American readers to this day, after the Bible!). Like his contemporary, Walter Scott, Cooper was well-known during his lifetime; his novels, particularly the five which comprise the Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the second instalment, brought him both fame and financial success. At the time of his death in 1851, Cooper was highly respected, and greatly admired by both Balzac and Hugo, the latter pronouncing him ‘the greatest novelist of the century’ (though he added ‘outside France’, naturellement). When the great Romantic composer Franz Schubert lay dying in Vienna in 1828, he asked for Cooper’s latest novel of the American frontier, and Berlioz named an overture after him. Thoreau, Melville and Conrad publicly recognised their literary debt to him. Though Cooper also had his detractors, most notably Mark Twain, who mocked him in his 1895 essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, mostly for being verbose and clichéd. But let’s face it, Twain mocked Jane Austen and George Eliot as well.

Today, however, Cooper is not very widely read. A cursory look at contemporary reader reviews of his novels reveals a distaste for his now antiquated writing style, and a very present-day rejection of Cooper’s representation of women and, more importantly, of First Nations characters, who are central to the Leatherstocking novels, and particularly The Last of the Mohicans.

Granted, it is very easy to find in this 200 year-old novel, subtitled, A Narrative of 1757 (it’s set two years before The Plains of Abraham, and includes the marquis de Montcalm as a central character) the kind of stereotyping of First Nations peoples that would later become the hallmark of the Hollywood western: the blood-thirsty, scalp-taking savage who whoops and yelps a great deal, but actually says very little. There certainly is blood and violence in this novel, and, yes, scalping and whooping too. The most notorious scenes graphically describe the alleged massacre of British forces and civilians retreating from Fort William Henry on New York’s Lake George by the First Nations tribes fighting with Montcalm – in Cooper’s version, the Hurons. And the Hurons in the novel, lead by the malevolent and vengeful Magua, are most definitely demonised. Equally, however, the novel celebrates and valourises the Lenape, belonging to the Delaware Nation, to whom the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, are related. Most unlike their later Hollywood stereotypes, these two, and many other Lenape are represented repeatedly in the novel as the epitome of decent, honourable, generous, intelligent, articulate and noble heroes.

And it is not only the Hurons who are vilified. The main white protagonist, Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye, orphaned as a child and adopted by the Mohicans, is given many opportunities to voice Cooper’s own views on the European colonisation of the continent, e.g., “’Tis a long and melancholy tradition . . .  for it is not to be denied that the evil has been mainly done by men with white skins.” Of the Great Spirit, who is repeatedly identified in the book as one with the Christian God, Hawkeye says, “He made with faces paler . . . . and appetites to devour the earth. . . . his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms inclose the land from the shores of the salt-water to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale faces.”

 

Though Cooper’s writing style may be out-dated, the central principles and characterisations of the novel are remarkably evocative of 21st century attitudes to First Nations. As is his nostalgic lament for the disappearing landscape of the American frontier (in 1826!). It is not only the Mohicans whom we witness the last of, but the unfettered American wilderness; notes Hawkeye, “Natur’ is sadly abused by man, when he once gets the mastery.” The first of the Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers (1823; set in 1793) includes a scene of a pigeon shoot, which might more accurately be termed a pigeon massacre. At that time, America was home to billions of passenger pigeons (the last died in captivity in 1914), and in this scene the sky is literally filled by their flocks. The local settlers proceed to mow them down by the thousands with all available firearms, including an old canon, but “None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.” An older Hawkeye is a disgusted witness to the slaughter, and expresses what may be regarded as an ‘environmentalist’ assessment, “If a body has a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why, it’s made the same as all other creatures, for man’s eating; but not to kill twenty and eat one. . . . It’s much better to kill only such as you want . . . Use, but don’t waste.

The Last of the Mohicans offers what may admittedly be old-fashioned unrelenting adventure, romance and heroic endeavor, all played out against a majestically drawn landscape (not to mention a man disguised as a bear, and another as a beaver, plus what is perhaps the most comically inappropriate time and place for a marriage proposal in all of romantic literature). But it also has something rather relevant to say to contemporary readers about today’s foremost social and political issues. In these days of occasionally quite literal iconoclasm, and some attempt by the present to erase the past, this novel from the past can still make a significant contribution to the present.

The Last of the Mohicans is available through Lennoxville Library interlibrary loan.

 

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

                             This Train Carries No One But Gamblers

In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad (2016) the passengers are all betting their lives that the trains will take them someplace safer than the slave life they are fleeing on the cotton plantations in the rural South of the 1850s. Everyone involved in the railroad – engineers, mechanics, conductors and station agents – are risking their lives too. This railroad is not a metaphor for a series of safe houses on the routes from the deep South to freedom and safety in the North or in Canada. There are real locomotives, real tunnels and tracks, a motley collection of cars, and stations with platforms. There are, however, no schedules, no tickets, and no maps. The station agents don’t know where the trains are coming from or where the tracks lead. The less they and the passengers know, the less they can reveal if they are exposed or captured.

The principal character in the story is a teenage slave named Cora. Whitehead begins her history two generations earlier. Her grandmother Ajarry had been captured near the Gold Coast of Africa. After being traded several times, she was finally sold to a ship captain from Liverpool. She was put into quarantine outside Charleston, before being cleared for sale. Bought and sold several more times by owners who went broke, she eventually wound up on a plantation in Georgia, which is where we meet her granddaughter.

Cora is going to travel to several states on the railroad. Each state is a metaphor for an institutional approach to how black people might be treated if the abolitionists were successful in legislating an end to slavery in America. Martin, a white man who shelters Cora in North Carolina, explains the problem to her.

“As with everything in the south, it started with cotton. The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. Crisscrossing the ocean, ships brought bodies to work the land and to breed more bodies…More slaves led to more cotton, which led to more money to buy more land to farm more cotton. Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable…Whites outnumbered slaves two to one in North Carolina, but in Louisiana and Georgia the populations neared parity. Just over the border in South Carolina, the number of blacks surpassed that of whites by more than a hundred thousand. It was not difficult to imagine the sequence when the slave cast off his chains in pursuit of freedom – and retribution.

Whitehead’s Georgia is the slave world that we have learned about from stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, more recently, Ten Years a Slave. Debauched and abusive owners supported by sadistic and vicious foremen regard their black captives as property that they can exploit in whatever manner they see fit. It is from this world that Cora’s mother Mabel had escaped, never to be seen or heard of again. Cora resents her mother for having abandoned her as a child in such a hostile and cruel environment. Arnold Ridgeway, the slave catcher, who will play a big role in Cora’s adventures, resents Mabel too as a blemish on his professional record. Whitehead will eventually explain how Mabel was able to elude Ridgeway’s clutches for so long.

South Carolina appears to be a place of relative enlightenment: blacks live in dormitories, eat in a dining hall and go to school. But it turns out to be an experiment in scientific racism where the organizers are attempting to prove that blacks truly are intellectually, emotionally and morally inferior to whites. And the whites are also eugenicists, advocating a program of sterilization for black women.

North Carolina has abolished slavery, and also black people. The state has bought up all slaves and sold them to owners in other states. All blacks caught in the state are to be executed, along with any white people who harbour them. This is a society that has the features of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia where neighbours spy on neighbours and sell them out to the authorities. But even the Nazis and Communists did not make the execution of their citizens a form of public entertainment.

Tennessee is a nightmare for everyone, black and white. Those places that have not been burned to a crisp by wildfires are beset by a yellow fever epidemic. Even Indiana, which appears to be a place of peace and tranquility for the blacks who have managed to make it that far, turns out to be an illusion.

Whitehead is not just writing history. The questions he raises about whether black people can ever find a place where they can belong in a society dominated by white racism are appropriate for today’s America too. All of the freedoms that blacks do enjoy have been bought at an enormous price in both blood and money, highlighted by the Civil War, but by no means starting or ending there.

Vincent Cuddihy

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Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Cormac McCarthy is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest living writers. Though he published his first novel over 50 years ago, he didn’t take his place among the pantheon of US novelists until the western, Blood Meridian, in 1985. Since then, All the Pretty Horses (1992), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006), among others, have earned him a National Book Award, a James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and a Pulitzer Prize. Now 85 yrs. old, he will reportedly release his 11th novel, The Passenger, in March 2019.

The Road is not an easy read. Its premise is that an unspecified cataclysmic event, most likely a nuclear war (“The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”), has left the world essentially a blasted and sterile cinder. The days are grey and cold; the landscape is burned; the cities melted; and just about everyone dead. The two protagonists, a father and perhaps eight-year-old son, born just after the catastrophe hit, and not long before his mother took her own life rather than deal with the horrors of survival in such a violent, hostile and hopeless world, remain unnamed throughout. The novel recounts their desperate attempt merely to survive from one day to the next, as they follow what’s left of the roads, and try to make their way to the coast, and to the south, where they hope to find sustenance, or at least warmth. They push in a shopping cart what meagre supplies they have managed to scrounge from deserted houses and farms, and already ransacked supermarkets. They spend the freezing nights as far away from the road as they can, to conceal themselves from armed groups of marauders, “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes”.

McCarthy is sometimes heralded as a successor to Faulkner inasmuch as they are both exponents of the Southern Gothic subgenre of American fiction. Certainly there are dark, Faulknerian elements throughout the bleak terrain of this novel. One thinks particularly of As I Lay Dying, and the sometimes grotesque single-mindedness of the Bundren family dragging their mother’s coffin through fire and flood to a far-off graveyard. Though, to be frank, there are some passages in The Road that are far, far more harrowing than anything you will find in Faulkner. As the title of his previous novel, No County for Old Men, attests, McCarthy is no stranger to allusion. In addition to Faulkner, one hears Hemingway in the matter-of-fact reporting of the day’s repeated routines, and perhaps even Defoe in the endless lists of another solitary survivor, Crusoe. McCarthy also shares, it must be conceded, Hemingway’s male-centric perspective: women in The Road are tertiary characters, and, it is implied, possibly reduced to being the means to an unimaginably horrific end. ‘Post-Feminist Fatherhood’ is perhaps the best possible spin one could put on McCarthy’s handling of gender in this 21st century work. If there is, in the plot, an oblique reference to Homer, The Road is nevertheless more Waiting for Godot than The Odyssey – Odysseus eventually makes it back to Ithaca.

Though it is Godot without the comedy. This is the bleakest of worlds in which the rain “smells like wet ashes”; in which when the son asks his father, “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” he answers “Getting up this morning”; in which, though there is absolutely no possibility of hope – they simply don’t have the strength for it – there is, at least, revelation and epiphany:

“He walked out in the grey light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

No, The Road does not offer humour, or character development, or a complex and varied plot, or much of what readers typically turn to novels for. What it does have – in deep layers, and in spite of the unspeakable horrors of its setting – is love. Both the indefatigable love the father has for his child (which McCarthy suggested, in the only interview he has ever given, might be autobiographical), and the more spiritual love McCarthy apparently has for a natural past, perhaps now under threat:

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Love, then. And a remarkable prose style that, in all the darkness, offers a light of its own – like an acetylene torch.

 

James Wilson

 

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Two by Rachel Joyce

                                                    Two for Friday

Someone gave me two books for my birthday with instructions, “Read ‘Harold Fry’ first in order to understand ‘Queenie’”. So that is how I found myself reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by veteran radio play writer Rachel Joyce. These are companion books: they describe the same time period and mostly the same events, but told from two different perspectives.

Harold Fry lives with his wife Maureen in Kingsbridge on the English Channel in Devon. He is recently retired from his lifetime job as a sales rep for a local brewery. On a spring morning he receives a letter postmarked “Berwick-upon-Tweed” which is on the North Sea coast as far north in England as you can go without crossing the Scottish border. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a woman who worked at the brewery until she disappeared twenty years ago and was not heard from again. The letter states that she is in Saint Bernadine’s Hospice where she is dying of cancer. She wants to thank Harold for the friendship he had shown her when they worked together.

Harold writes a note to Queenie and goes out to mail it. He decides that she might get it quicker if he mails it from the post office. By the time he reaches the post office, he decides he really ought to deliver the message in person. So he starts walking to the hospice. He stops for lunch at a service station and the girl at the counter tells him her aunt had stayed alive when she had cancer because she believed she would. This is the final push he needs to start off on his pilgrimage wearing his yachting shoes and the clothes on his back.

Harold phones Maureen to tell her what he is doing. He is looking for her approval, but she is pretty skeptical at first. She thinks Harold has left her for good. Their marriage has been largely a sham for many years. Not only do they not sleep in the same bed, they have not even shared the same room for a long time. She seeks the advice of their son David. At first David comes across as a Sheridan Bucket clone from Keeping up Appearances – a selfish mooch who has his doting mother wrapped around his finger, who never visits and only calls to scrounge money for booze and drugs from his long suffering parents. But Joyce keeps nudging the reader to do the math and one comes to realize that there is something more serious that has driven the wedge between David and his family.

Maureen has been trying to hide the fact that Harold is gone from Rex, their neighbor, who has recently been widowed and is clearly lonely. She tells him Harold is sick, but that just leads to more questions and eventually she breaks down and tells him the truth. He becomes an important ally and advisor because of his own experience with losing a loved one for good.

Harold has also phoned the hospice and told the nun who answered that he is coming; he told her to tell Queenie to wait for him. He starts sending post cards to Queenie to show the progress he is making. This gets the patients at the hospice excited when they realize that someone is marching the length of England to see one of their own. They put up a display board in the lounge with the post cards. And they are delighted to see Harold on television as his quest becomes better known.

Harold does not know that Queenie’s tumor is in her jaw. Not only is it disfiguring her, but it is reducing her capacity to eat and to talk intelligibly. The nuns persuade her that she must make her own journey to meet Harold. Since she has reached out to him, she must have something to tell him. She won’t be able to speak to him by the time he arrives, so she needs to write it down. Sister Mary Inconnu has found a portable typewriter and is transcribing what Queenie writes in her notebook so that Harold will be able to read it when he arrives.

Canadian content alert! The original Sister Mary Inconnu was an early 19th century nun from the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. She had been decapitated and her head had been taken away. In the days before finger print analysis and DNA testing, facial recognition was the only way to identify a corpse. (If the phrase “dental records” even flickered across your mind, you haven’t been paying attention.) Without a face, she became referred to as Unknown Mary. Legend had it that she haunted the area looking for her missing head so that she could be properly identified on her gravestone.

The Harold book documents the trials and tribulations, as well as the triumphs, of Harold’s journey. He gives up more than once and it is Maureen who persuades him to keep going. It also contains his reminiscences of Queenie and the times they spent traveling in his car when she was doing audits of the pubs that bought their employer’s beer. At the same time, the Queenie book is documenting her memories of what she did before arriving in Kingsbridge and what she did after she left, as well as the time that she and Harold worked together.  

I found both of these books to be gripping. They are very funny in parts. But sensitive readers are cautioned to keep tissues handy. Joyce’s descriptions of the deaths of Queenie’s hospice mates are sometimes very poignant.    

Vincent Cuddihy

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Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan

Easily Distracted (2015) is an autobiography by actor/comedian Steve Coogan. If you’ve seen the film, The Trip (2011), or The Trip to Italy (2014), or The Trip to Spain (2017), you know who Steve Coogan is. Fellow peregrinating gastronome, the affable Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, is the ‘nice’ one of the two. In these very popular films, Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves on restaurant tours, and act out a version of their real-life competitive professional relationship as impersonators – particularly Michael Caine impersonators. The food and scenery are spectacular, and there are plenty of laughs, as they repeatedly try to ‘out-Caine’ each other in Buddy/Road films in which the buddiehood is just a little bit strained, mostly by the screen version of Coogan’s edginess. That the real-life Coogan is well aware of his reputation as a bit of a bad boy is more than apparent in his book. Recalling a boyhood argument he had with a neighbouring boy about their respective dad’s cars (which the neighbour’s dad’s car won), Coogan reports the following barb:

I knew he was right [about the better car]. I was tormented. But I had an ace up my sleeve. ‘Well,’ I hesitated. ‘Your dad has a limp and walks like this.’ I hobbled around the playground. You can see why I’m not on Twitter.

Easily Distracted is that rara avis among celebrity autobiographies: it is, indeed, rich in nasty personal attacks, but in this case, almost all of the attacks are against the author. Coogan is certainly not afraid to skewer himself, and manages to be very funny about it at the same time.

Structurally, the book is a bit odd. As he played Tristram Shandy in another film, you might expect Coogan to begin his life story with ‘I am born’ (if not ‘I am conceived’ a la Tristram). But no, Part One – roughly one quarter of the book – treats a two-year period when Coogan was in his late forties, before he returns, in Part Two, to his early childhood and adolescence, then, in Part Three, brings us to the present day. This is probably not a Homeric homage, but more likely a reflection of Coogan’s need, perhaps subconscious, to focus the reader’s attention on what he, at least, sees as his greatest successes: not, interestingly, his most famous comic creation, Alan Partridge (a less nasty but equally obtuse Basil Fawlty), but the ‘more important’, and not primarily comedic, Philomena (2013), a film about the tragedy of forced adoption by the Catholic Church in 1950s Ireland, which Coogan co-starred in, and co-wrote. Coogan’s background is Irish, and he was brought up a Catholic in Manchester. Also in Part One, Coogan introduces us to his highly developed social conscience: in 2011 he was one of a few actors and other celebrities who took the British tabloid The News of the World to court – and won – over the phone hacking scandal that eventually spelled the demise of that newspaper. Though even when Coogan is at his most serious, in condemning the immorality of tabloid journalists, he can’t stop making wry jokes: “I wanted to make public the behind-the-scenes behavior of some journalists who think ‘ethics’ is where Page 3 girls with lisps come from”.

In Part One of Easily Distracted, you might be excused for thinking you were reading the autobiography of a social activist rather than a Monty Python-inspired professional comedian. With Part Two, we are on more familiar celebrity autobiography ground: ‘this was my childhood, my parents, my family, my upbringing, and this is how these things helped to shape the artist I became’. Though Parts One and Three (in which Coogan refocuses on his professional career) are more typically titillating, Part Two, treating his growing up in Manchester in the 1960s and 70s, is much more interesting and rewarding. Despite his mature anti-church feelings, there is no escaping his nostalgia for an early life in a traditionally Christian home and community, replete with fondly recalled annual holidays in Ireland. Though now an atheist, Coogan can see in the values instilled in him by his Catholic parents and community the basis for his left-leaning politics. And though now an atheist, he admits to a degree of ambivalence, since, as a child he “once prayed for an Aston Martin in Church”, and now he owns two.

Also in Part Two Coogan perfects the technique latent in all autobiographies by people who are not in themselves important historically: placing his own personal world within the larger historical context. Given that it’s Coogan, the results are often memorably funny:

In September 1972 eleven Israeli athletes [were] killed at the Munich Olympics. The same year Watergate was unfolding, [and] the Bloody Sunday killings. But more importantly, on 14 October that year, I became the first person in my school to invite girls to my birthday party.

In the late 1970s, Coogan was in his mid teens:

It was also around this time that nuclear reactors melted on Three Mile Island, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and the previous winter of discontent led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, our first female prime minister. More importantly, I put my hand inside a girl’s bra for the first time.

The particular juxtaposition of ‘first female prime minister’ and ‘hand inside a girl’s bra’ sounds the keynote of Coogan’s particular brand of acutely self-aware ironic comedy. It’s the stuff that Alan Partridge is made of.

Elsewhere, Coogan attributes his remarkable abilities in impersonation to having to resort – in pre-VHS days – to audiotaping episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, and endlessly playing them back and imitating the voices to entertain his extended Irish Catholic family; asserts that mocking people – another Coogan staple – is more simply a particularly British sign of affection; that having being brought up a Catholic meant that he found release and reassurance in the ‘ambiguity’ of Shakespeare, and the ‘difference’ of Blake.

He claims that a ‘common denominator of loved British comedy characters’ – a trait that he shares – is that ‘they are all frustrated . . . they are essentially disappointed with their lives’. He admits to being jealous of the nicer Rob Brydon, and that Brydon may even be the funnier of the two. But, he adds. “I don’t care if people don’t think I’m funny. I’d rather make people think and if they laugh as well, that’s a bonus.”

Coogan took his title, Easily Distracted, from a teacher’s assessment in one of his childhood report cards. I think we can see that self-aware ironic comedy at play again there. For Steve Coogan being funny doesn’t mean being distracted at all.

                                                               

                                                                                                James Wilson

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Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

A Tale of Two Sisters

by Vincent Cuddihy

Late in 2009 Patrick Rafferty died in a single-car crash en route from the bar he owned in Dorchester to the family home in Hull on the southernmost fringes of Boston. His mother Nora had been summoned in the middle of the night to identify the corpse. The first thing she did when she got home was to call an abbey of cloistered nuns in rural Vermont for the first time in 30 years and ask the novice who answered to tell Mother Cecilia Flynn that her son was dead. Sister Alma did not understand that Nora was referring to Mother Cecilia’s son.

That is the beginning of J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel set in New England, Saints for All Occasions (2017). Sullivan, who lives in Brooklyn, saw her 2011 book Maine named a 2011 Time magazine Best Book of the Year and a Washington Post Notable Book; her 2013 work, The Engagements, was named a People magazine Top Ten Book of the Year and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. A large part of the story is devoted to explaining how the mother superior of the Abbey of the Immaculate Conception had a son lying in the morgue of a Boston hospital.

We first meet the Flynn sisters, Nora and Theresa, as they are preparing to leave their home in Miltown Malbay near the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in County Clare. It is 1957 and they are heading off to Cobh, just south of Cork, to board a ship that will take them to New York. Nora’s boyfriend, Charlie Rafferty, has gone on before them and will meet them when they arrive to take them to Boston. Charlie expects that he and Nora will be married shortly after she settles down and they are confident that her younger sister is well settled too. Nora is not so sure.

In the end, it is Theresa who changes Nora and Charlie’s plans. Younger, prettier and more vivacious, it is Theresa who wants to go out dancing and attend parties. She has not benefitted from the discipline that their mother was able to impose on Nora before she died. The girls are not supposed to leave Mrs. Quinlan’s boarding house unescorted. So when Nora begins to refuse to go out, Theresa starts sneaking off on her own. She has become smitten by Walter McClain. When Theresa becomes pregnant, she thinks Walter will marry her. But Theresa is not the only one carrying one of Walter’s babies and someone else beats her to the punch.

Theresa is sequestered in a home for unwed mothers and a couple is found to adopt the child. But Nora can’t stand the idea that a member of the family will be raised by strangers. So she tells Charlie they are getting married. What’s more, she goes through the charade of pretending to be pregnant so that she and Charlie can take possession of Theresa’s baby when he is born. Theresa can’t stand being an aunt to her own son and heads to New York where she finds work as a teacher. One of her fellow teachers mentions that members of her family have a custom of going on retreat to an abbey in Vermont and invites Theresa along. This practice becomes a matter of routine for the two women and eventually they both join the order.

Nora is bitter that Theresa has left her to raise Theresa’s son by herself. Eventually, she and Charlie have two children of their own. But when Patrick is a teenager, he gets into a fight and badly injures another boy. Fearing for her son’s life, Nora packs the family up overnight and moves out to the house in Hull where they will be safely removed from the Irish community back in Boston. One of the most touching parts of this novel occurs when Nora and Charlie take the children to Ireland to see the homes where their parents grew up.

Sullivan devotes a large part of her effort to describing convent life, the changes that are being forced upon women who choose such a life and the changing roles of women in the Catholic Church. One of the most interesting things she documents is how Mother Cecilia’s (Theresa’s) leadership has allowed a cloistered abbey to continue to attract new members when many other convents are shutting down because the sisters are aging and no newcomers replace them.

The title comes from a booklet that one of the aunt’s had that listed which saint to pray to for which need, with suggestions for appropriate prayers. Most of us learned some of these as children: St. Christopher is the patron of travelers, St. Jude is the patron of lost causes, etc.

 

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