‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry tells the story of Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist and recent widow who moves to Colchester in the 1890s with her servant-companion Martha and son Francis and meets the local vicar Reverend William Ransome. There are rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent which once stalked the Blackwater estuary has been spotted again near the coastal village of Aldwinter, and some mysterious deaths have sent the local residents into panic. Cora and Will are both sceptical of the rumours surrounding the return of the beast but for very different reasons with Cora believing the creature could be an undiscovered species whereas Will’s concerns lie in his parishioners’ apparent lack of faith. Yet despite these differences, they start to form a close and intense bond.
I first came across ‘The Essex Serpent’ in some of the “books to watch out for in 2016” lists and featured it in my own list at the beginning of the year. Although I have yet to read Perry’s debut novel ‘After Me Comes the Flood’, I was particularly intrigued by the setting of her second novel on the Essex coastline which provides a fascinating contrast to the portrayal of inner-city London during the late Victorian era. Perry herself hails from the county of Essex (as do I) and Cora’s early impressions about her new surroundings in a letter to her friend Luke Garrett could, perhaps, be a new tagline for the local tourist industry today: “It’s cold, but the sea air is good, and Essex nowhere near as bad as they say.”
Perry’s prose is both authentically Victorian gothic in style, reminiscent of sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in many ways, while skilfully avoiding the trap of writing a ham-fisted parody of the genre. Her exploration of the issues surrounding the science vs. religion debate are also much more nuanced than the seemingly clear-cut differences between Luke and Will’s respective professions as a surgeon and clergyman may suggest, particularly where traditional and modern ideas are concerned as well as love and friendship.
Cora and Will’s relationship based on mutual admiration despite their different beliefs as well as their characters as individuals are richly developed and often unconventional. Cora in particular stands out as being fiercely independent with ideas well ahead of her time, rarely concerned about how her peers and the rest of society may perceive her. While Cora’s story forms the heart of the novel, there is also a strong cast of supporting characters and a subplot about the efforts to improve slum housing in central London which shares worrying parallels with the situation faced by many residents in the capital today.
‘The Essex Serpent’ is an atmospheric and brilliantly original historical novel with fascinating characters. It is very likely to be one of my top books of the year and is surely a strong contender for several upcoming literary award longlists, including the Man Booker Prize in July and next year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.