The Guardian recently reviewed Sarah Perry’s acclaimed and best-selling novel, The Essex Serpent. When Cora Seaborne’s controlling husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Along with her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, in the hope that fresh air and open space will provide refuge.
On arrival, rumours reach them that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter.
Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for superstition, is enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a yet-undiscovered species.
As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who is also deeply suspicious of the rumours, but thinks they are a distraction from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, Will and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves at once drawn together and torn apart, affecting each other in ways that surprise them both.
The Essex Serpent is a celebration of love, and the many different shapes it can take.
In Sarah Perry’s second novel, 1890s London is mad about the sciences, especially palaeontology.
Every six months someone publishes a paper “setting out ways and places extinct animals might live on”, while smart women collect ammonites or wear necklaces of fossil teeth set in silver. New widow Cora Seagrave is patently relieved by the death of her unpleasant husband, a civil servant with “twice the power of a politician and none of the responsibility”; accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis, she leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex.
There, “never sure of the difference between thinking and believing”, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary; and meets its spiritual adversary, the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship of voluble opposition and unspoken attraction.
Perry’s excellent debut, After Me Comes the Flood, was short and strange, narrated out of a sensibility difficult to define or place, from a distance that seemed both alienated and intimate. Scenes shifted filmily across one another, characters slipped in and out of view, the effect being of something not fully told, yet fully present; not quite visible, yet producing a troubled enchantment. The Essex Serpent, by contrast, is fully acted out. Fertile, open, vocal about its own origins and passions, crammed with incident, characters and plot, it weighs in at a sturdy 441 pages. It is a novel of ideas, though its sensibility is firmly, consciously, even a little cheekily, gothic. The dreamy delivery of the previous book becomes, in this one, outright story. Narrative and voice coil together until it is very difficult to stop reading, very difficult to avoid being dragged into Aldwinter’s dark and sometimes darkly comic waters.
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The Essex Serpent is locally published by Jonathan Ball.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
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