The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

It’s seldom that I buy new books, being a skinflint with a very large existent TBR, and even rarer for me to fork out for a hardback, but after reading about Sarah Perry’s second novel my miserly old fingers tapped out an online order in two shakes of a gnat’s whisker. And what a joy it is, how absolutely justified you too would be to rush out and purchase a copy, let me try to explain why.

It struck her that everything under the white sky was made of the same substance – not quite animal, but not merely earth: where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers. Had it always been here – this marvellous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral-coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had the rain always had this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?

It is 1893 and Cora Seaborne’s vicious husband has just died of throat cancer. Exhilarated by her new freedom, Cora decides to indulge her passion for fossils and decamps to Colchester with her son, Francis, and his nurse, Martha, hoping to discover on the Essex coast something as momentous as Mary Anning has done in Dorset. She is soon intrigued by Aldwinter, a village right at the sea’s edge, now in thrall to the belief that a monster last seen in the seventeenth century has returned to prey on livestock and villagers. Also intriguing is William Ransome, vicar of Aldwinter, trying to calm his parishioners and steer them from terrified superstition back to their faith, and his wife Stella, with her hectic cheeks and obsession with the colour blue.

It’s hard to decide which element of The Essex Serpent brings the greatest joy. High on a shortlist must be Perry’s evocative and precise use of language, as you can undoubtedly see in the passages I quote here. Rooted in the Bible (as of course is the society), with nods at times to Dickens, at times to Hardy, Perry’s lovely prose builds a rural Essex or a London slum with a lyrical, almost tangible physicality that contrasts with the worlds of ideas, scientific and religious, that many of the main characters explore and discuss.

Perry also conjures up a splendid cast of characters with real depth to them, from Martha with her Socialist and practical plans to improve the lives of London’s poor to the MP Charles Ambrose, who is good-natured but indolent, provoked to good works less out of altruism than to please his friends. As in real life, people don’t always behave as you expect them to; they hurt each other and deceive themselves. Many of the relationships are surprising and cut across class barriers: Cora treats Martha as an equal, not a servant; Joanna, the vicar’s daughter, is best friends with Naomi, child of a drunken boatman; Francis, who might today be diagnosed with a form of autism, finds an unexpectedly tender affinity with Stella, and their collections of talismanic objects form a magical counterpart to the medical and archaeological specimens in scientific collections.

Love and its many forms is at the heart of this novel. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but people fall in love with each other and that love isn’t always reciprocated, or they love more than one person, or their love wavers between romantic love and friendship. The third central character (beside Cora and William) is Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is in love with Cora and who performs a pioneering open heart operation on a man who has been stabbed:

Spencer watched as Luke slipped in his hand – the wrist angled a little, the fingers curved – to cup the heart where he could, to feel it, because (he’d always said, even with the dead ones) it was the most intimate thing, and sensual, and he saw by touch as much as by sight. With his left hand he steadied the heart, and with his right he took from Fry the curved needle threaded with a catgut ligature so fine it would have been fit for wedding silk.

The heart that has literally been pierced can be stitched back together again but the man who regains consciousness is a different man from whom he was before. His mother says, ‘It’s like the old Ned bled out and I’ve got another one in his place and I have to get to know him before I can say he’s my son.’ So the principal characters in the novel are marked and changed by love. Every form of affection enriches them and helps them to do better and be better. The operation on the heart brings together two other strands of the novel: the amazing possibilities of science, which studies and examines the human heart as a physical object subject to certain laws and forces, and the limits of science, which cannot yet fathom love, symbolised by that heart, and the meanings that humans ascribe to it.

The characters use their scientific knowledge, their religious beliefs and their magical thinking to explain the world to themselves. They refine on their experiences to make sense of them. When Cora helps to rescue the sheep, even before it has been pulled from the mud she is ‘already wondering how to tell the tale to best please her friends.’ Reality is not unmediated and in fact how you tell your story determines the acceptability of that story. When, one evening, Joanna, Naomi and John encounter the Serpent, the novel switches at the crucial moment from describing their experience omnisciently and as it happened to describing what they claim to have seen:

Much later – and only when pressed, since it had all seemed to be part of a ritual of which the children felt strangely ashamed – each claimed to have seen a curious thickening and rising of the water in a particular place, just where the salt-marsh ended and the riverbed shelved steeply down. There’d been no sound, nothing as comfortingly frightening as a long limb or rolling eye; only a movement that was too swift and directionless to be the casting of a wave. John claimed that it had about it a whitish look, but Joanna thought that was only the moon peering out and brightening the surface with her gaze. Naomi, the first to speak up, embellished the event with such a flourish of wing and snout that it was generally accepted she’d seen nothing at all, and her testimony was discarded.

This is an enormously hopeful, kind and indeed playful book, pleasurable to read, generous to its characters and their failings, bursting with ideas, wonderfully written and nicely paced. I should also mention that its cover is perfect, both nodding to and complicating Victorian textiles just as the novel itself plays with nineteenth-century fictional conventions. I am anxious to read Perry’s first novel now, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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Helen blogs at A Gallimaufry, where this review first appeared.

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail, 2016). 978-1781255445, 432pp.,hardback.

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