The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Release Date: 27/05/2016
Publisher (UK): Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 432pp RRP: £14.99 (Hardback)
Kindle version available here (£6.99)
It’s been pretty difficult to avoid The Essex Serpent over the last few months. From whisperings of potential award nominations to even bookshop murals of the fantastic cover jacket, Sarah Perry’s second novel seems to be making quite the impact. Her debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood (2014), demonstrated her passion for Gothic literature (stemming from her PhD on the Gothic elements in the works of Iris Murdoch), a delicate and evocative writing style, and an ability to create memorable landscapes – all of which are on display here. After finishing it earlier today, I have to say that it’s got what it takes to make the shortlist of quite a few awards in the near future.
Set over the course of a year in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent follows the recently widowed Cora Seaborne as she moves from London to Colchester, seeking to indulge her naturalist interests, travelling there with her son Francis, and companion Martha. Eventually arriving in the fictional village of Aldwinter, she befriends the local vicar, William Ransome, and begins to develop an intense friendship and intellectual sparring match. To add to this, a wave of freak occurrences in the area (such as the loss of livestock, sudden storms, and drownings) are being increasingly attributed to a malevolent entity: the Essex Serpent. The serpent is seen by several characters as representing a wrong committed in the past and long since forgotten. This has left William fighting against the shadow cast over his flock, one made ever-present by the carving of a serpent on one of the pews of his church. Even William’s sickly wife, Stella, encourages their children to think of the serpent in this way. One key suggestion of what this sin could be draws the focus of the narrative towards the squalor of London, using a modern perspective to look at the lives of the working poor, and their exploitation by malicious landlords. It is suggested that the horror of these conditions is beginning to seep out of the City, and reach outwards towards the inhabitants of Aldwinter.
At its core, however, the novel isn’t just about the ‘serpent’, but also the developing relationships between its cast, particularly Cora and William, and the clashing of their respective viewpoints. William has brought his family to Aldwinter to escape the encroaching modernisation of city life and the horrors associated with it, whilst Cora’s focus on naturalism and science in general, leads her into frequent arguments with William – whilst William fears what the Essex Serpent represents for his faith, Cora is enraptured at the chance to examine a ‘living fossil’. Despite this conflict, they cannot help but be drawn to each other.
The supporting cast are all given their time to shine – I found Martha to be a particular favourite. Blunt, idealistic, and determined to improve the lives of the less fortunate, Martha’s sections feel expertly crafted, and a prime example of Perry’s unique take on this format. Cora’s patron, Charles Ambrose, proves to be both genial and gluttonous during his appearances. The arc given to Cora’s other intellectual sparing partner of sorts (and her late husband’s physician, who she also dubs ‘The Imp’), Luke Garrett, grants us an interesting look on the fine relationship between love and loathing, whilst offering up fascinating sequences describing rudimentary heart surgery. The use of correspondence between various characters to frame the chapters is a great structural device, whilst also allowing Perry to poke fun at her characters and the relationships they build. It roots the novel in the legacy of key British authors of the period, whilst serving the more practical purpose of helping to drive the narrative forward. It’s also worth noting that the writing style used here also creates an additional character: the landscape itself. The description of the Essex countryside conjures an image of a wintery vista that never moves into spring – a damp, cold and muddy vision that almost gives the writing a physical texture – one perfect for a malevolent presence to inhabit.
Perry’s work demonstrates her deep understanding of Gothic literature – she gets what makes it great, without falling prey to the clichés that other authors have before her. Through these relationships she explores, Perry looks at whether friendship and love can save us in our darker moments – and I felt that she offered an optimistic answer to that investigation. It’s hard to describe this novel without giving away too much, but I will say this: Perry’s modern take allows her to pick apart conventional conceptions of Victorian social norms, and has crafted a layered story incorporating fear, love (both platonic and not), attempted murder, surgical experiments, and a whole lot more – leaving you with an experience that stays with you.