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Archive by tag: Sarah PerryReturn
May 20, 2022

As an adaptation of her bestselling novel comes to screens, Sarah Perry describes the joys of being on set – and how the production restored her faith in storytelling

In March 2021, I was driven by a stranger down to the Essex coast, and there I found myself at the end of the 19th century, in a place that had never existed, full of people who’d never been born.

At any rate, that was the impression; in fact, I’d been deposited in a field on Mersea Island, which is cut off from the Essex mainland by a causeway inaccessible at high tide. Filming was under way for an adaptation of my novel The Essex Serpent, and since Mersea was one of the locations making do for Aldwinter, the imagined village where the novel is set, I’d been invited to take a look. The field had been colonised by a series of trucks and trailers, and everywhere I looked crew members were dashing about with clipboards and headsets, occasionally interspersed with actors in top hats, or in petticoats inches deep in Essex mud.

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Jul 31, 2021

Inspired by a desire to be good and help others during the pandemic, novelist Sarah Perry trained to vaccinate people. But what does it mean to be good when there is so much bad faith?

Earlier this year – lockdown three: no sign of spring – I travelled to an airport to try to be good. Dogged for months by the sense of my own uselessness, and having wept with relief and accumulated sorrow when the first Covid-19 vaccine was approved, I’d joined an organisation training volunteers to deliver vaccinations, and so arrived at a desolate Stansted shortly after dawn. Here I sat in the basement of a hotel fallen almost out of use, and in the company of a hundred strangers – though alone and masked in a square of carpet marked out with black tape – learned how to treat fainting fits, panic attacks and anaphylactic shock. In our number were a circus performer, a firefighter, a consultant of some kind; and having been starved of unfamiliar faces for so long we were all, I think, happy to be there (putting a woman in the recovery position I apologised for what seemed a shocking intimacy; but she said what a pleasure it was, after all that time, to be touched). Then we attached sponges to our upper arms, and learned how to insert the needle at 45 degrees, stretching the skin to avoid a bleed; how to depress the plunger, and then remove the needle without doing ourselves a mischief. Then, observed by the nurse, who’d hurried out of retirement to train us, we demonstrated our prowess, were awarded a certificate, and went home to await deployment.

Related: Sarah Perry: what good are books, in a situation like this?

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Jun 05, 2021

Authors share the books they have enjoyed reading this year, including a hilarious dark comedy, poetry and a study of mystery illnesses

Hilary Mantel
Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother, longlisted for the International Booker, has a disabled child at its centre and squares up to dangerous subjects. It is a heartening novel, because though it asks the reader to think hard, it puts its faith in simplicity and love. Neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan offers The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness to put you wise about Havana syndrome and other puzzles: it’s not cheerful, but it is current and it is bracing.

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Feb 20, 2021

Authors choose the Kazuo Ishiguro novels closest to their hearts, including Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant and The Remains of the Day

Margaret Atwood

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Oct 02, 2020

Novelist Sarah Perry carried Essex with her ‘like a white patent leather bag’ -until she discovered the county’s history of remarkable and outspoken women

In the kingdom of the East Saxons, towards the end of the seventh century, the noblewoman Ethelburga founded an abbey in a place they called Berecingum, which means “the people who live among the birch trees”. Here she “preserved the glory of perpetual virginity”, says Bede, “in a life of great self-denial”; and when one morning, mindful of the plague, she took her women out to choose the piece of land where they’d be buried, she witnessed light descending from heaven in the form of a shining white sheet. In this way the abbey became holy land, and there the 12th-century nun Clemence translated from Latin into French a life of Edward the Confessor, imploring her readers not to “despise it, nor to disregard the good in it”, merely because she was a woman. The community lasted until the dissolution of the monasteries: the work of women undone by the devices and desires of men. In the soil where the abbey stood, pegs from stringed instruments were found, and tools for weaving, together with gold thread, hair combs and manicure kits: this is the evidence of their accomplishment and beauty. What remains now of the abbey in the birches is only a pale tower on a pavement, and this tower may be reached by taking the Hammersmith & City line out of London to the east: Berecingum has become Barking, and the women of the abbey were Essex girls.

If you might not have suspected Essex of having been the site of that sacred ground and those holy women, I can’t hold you entirely to blame. A landscape is constructed not only from its hills and the species of its common trees, but from the cultural and historical associations attached to it. Heathcliff will always possess the Yorkshire moors; Tess of the D’Urbervilles will sit forever weeping on her Dorset milking stool. So it is impossible now to think of Essex without thinking also of vapid women in leopard print and heels; of the jokes which begin, say: “How does an Essex girl hold her liquor?” and end with a schoolboy smirk. Ethelburga is no match for Gemma Collins; the Essex oaks and sloping fields of flax are no match for the appetite of London’s borders. The cultural phenomenon of the Essex girl has changed the Essex landscape, as if her arrival altered the geology that underpins the towns. This is a reciprocal arrangement; the landscape alters those who are born there. In the language of the Saxons – whose weapon, the seax, its curved blade notched to inflict greater damage to the neck, appears on the Essex coat of arms – stede means “place”, and so every girl born in Essex is steadfast: held to the place of her birth.

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Sep 24, 2020

Radiant and visionary, the fourth Gilead novel explores whether a minister’s prodigal son can be redeemed by love

Marilynne Robinson, having attained over the past four decades the status of literature’s spiritual leader, now expands her acclaimed Gilead trilogy into a quartet with a new novel, Jack. It might perhaps be best described as a Calvinist romance – and certainly it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary writer who could achieve so improbable a conflation of doctrine and feeling.

In 2004, 24 years after her debut Housekeeping saw her greeted as a writer of magisterial wisdom and skill, Robinson published Gilead. It takes the form of a single letter written in 1956 by the Rev John Ames to his young son: Ames’s heart is failing, and he wishes to leave behind him an account of his life and faith. The novel is distinguished by an exacting and capacious intelligence, together with an enthralled sensibility that elevates the ordinary – a child’s game, the passage of the midwestern light – to the sublime. Ames is greatly attached to his friend Robert Boughton, a retired minister whose son Jack is the cause of much fatherly sorrow, having absented himself from home and from God. When, towards the end of the novel, this prodigal son returns, he confides the secret of his absence not to his father, but to Ames.

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Sep 10, 2020

Covid-19 has heightened our perception of danger so that every day is a series of finely balanced calculations. How do we decide which are the risks worth taking, asks Sarah Perry

Last week the nearby primary school, disconsolately quiet since March, opened its doors again. For months I’ve passed its empty playground on the morning walk, and watched black curtains drawn over the windows gather perceptible dust; so it’s pleasant to see them opened to the sight of September, and the gates unlocked, and children marshalled through with new books for the new term. Meanwhile restaurants in town are welcoming diners in, though the waiter wears a metalworker’s visor, as if those diners might very well spit sparks. The salons are open, and are busy; the airports are open, and are not. The thought of all this causes a lightening of my spirits which is quite involuntary, and has little to do with my daily scrutiny of charts of infection and fatality, having its causes more in feeling than in fact. The oppressive sensation of constant risk, which has cast its shadow on the everyday like obstinate cloud cover, is moving away. Unconsciously I think: the risk is fading – it must be – they are opening up the schools! Acts which were once ordinary, and which became for a time as risky as barefoot walking on a mountain ridge, are becoming ordinary again. So it has become necessary to caution myself, and recollect that no cloud cover moves without a wind to shift it, and winds can change, and bring back the old bad weather.

But the risk was low: to begin with. That a new virus had emerged from a marketplace was no great surprise – it had happened before, and would happen again. And in fact the disease it caused was largely a matter of a feverish cough, though certainly it was troubling that a few landed in hospital with gullets prised open by tubing, in due course to die alone or to survive, depleted, as the fates allowed. It was no worse than the flu, said a traveller on the last train I took this year. Well, perhaps: but in 1918 and 19 the flu had killed more than the first world war, and there’d been mass graves, and so on. At any rate the risk was not severe enough to confine the plucky British within doors, but – we understood that certain calculations had been made in Downing Street: we should wash our hands with Pilate’s enthusiasm, if more frequently. Bare facts emerged, were grasped, and slipped out of fingers sore from too much soap. Eighty per cent of cases were mild; the fatality rate was 1.4%, unless it was 2%, or 3.4%; the virus lived cheerfully on clothing and handrails and newspapers for 72 hours (mindful of this, a friend of mine quarantined all post in the porch for three days).

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Jul 09, 2020

This portrait of a 60s band on the rise conveys the spirit of the age with gleeful energy

David Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, arrives both as a distinct and distinctive book, and as a further chapter in the ongoing “metanovel” that constitutes his work to date. At first, it appears closer in theme and style to the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green than to the giddying, multivalent Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: it is placed firmly and with pleasing particularity in the 1960s, and is in effect a coming-of-age novel. What comes of age is Utopia Avenue, “the most curious British band you’ve never heard of”. The band comprises the middle-class folk singer Elf Holloway, who calls to mind Sandy Denny, and who is cautiously examining her sexuality; Jasper de Zoet, whose genius on lead guitar is compromised by aural hallucinations; Dean Moss, bassist, not yet wrenched out of his traumatising family past; and the drummer Griff, who is of the four the most opaque, though we are assured he is a Yorkshireman.

They are brought together and in due course managed by Levon Frankland, previously seen as a much older man in The Bone Clocks, whose fur hat and blue glasses Dean worriedly parses as those of “a queer beatnik”. An immense cast – drawn from homes in Kent, clubs in the West End and parties in New York – attends the band, as Mitchell traces Utopia Avenue’s uneven trajectory from the Gravesend Working Men’s Club and the bar at Brighton Polytechnic via Italy to Manhattan, which seems from the air to float “on glassy dark, a raft laden with skyscrapers”. The band acquire success, ardent fans and a degree of pleasant notoriety, but not – of course – happiness; and Mitchell is expert at excavating the seams of loss, ambition and mere chance that lie under the edifice of fame. Each member experiences the irresolvable tensions between the demands and rewards of art and ambition, and the opposing forces of duty, failure and sorrow. Death arrives suddenly; love is offered, withdrawn and squandered. The impulse to make music is inexplicable, irresistible and constant.

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