Sarah Perry's historical novel The Essex Serpent was today named as Waterstones's Book of the Year – but does it live up to the hype? It certainly does, writes Charlotte Runcie
‘There are no mysteries any more,” writes Dr Luke Garrett to his friend Cora Seaborne in The Essex Serpent. He is wrong, of course, and thank goodness. This irresistible novel, Sarah Perry’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut After Me Comes the Flood, is all about the ancient and modern mysteries that surround us, that seep into our bones and keep us awake at night, and have done ever since Britain was walked by long-extinct beasts before history began.
In 1669, a pamphlet was published in London proclaiming STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ESSEX. It reported stories of a flying serpent that had supposedly been killing farm animals and horrifying the people of Saffron Walden. Perry takes this tale and imagines an Essex village in the late 19th century, when rumours of the serpent return once more to give children nightmares; the local rector, William Ransome, is left struggling to keep his flock from going mad with fright.
In the midst of it all is Cora Seaborne, a forceful widow from London, who heads to Essex in search of adventure with her quiet and unusual son and her politically minded female companion, whom she adores. The novel is a love affair set in a tumultuous Britain: Darwinism is eroding the nation’s faith; everywhere, there is social and scientific upheaval.
Perry’s Victoriana is the most fresh-feeling I can remember, with none of the awkwardly crammed-in research that can plague the contemporary historical novel. Her prose is economical, insistent and often beautiful. She draws out what the late 19th-century folk had in common with us: it’s a novel where Londoners take the Tube, snack on chocolate, tease each other over glasses of wine and worry about house prices.
The tone is a masterstroke, allowing Perry to slip under the surface of everyday life and into the depths of its hidden places, where 19th-century novelists would have fear to tread. Perry’s women have extramarital sex and generally do exactly as they please without fear of Victorian narrative justice. You won’t find a young girl succumbing to the charms of a rich man and ending up pregnant and dead, for instance.
Perry has a flair for dialogue, too. The sparring conversations between Cora and Ransome, in particular, feel exactly like overhearing two of your cleverest friends match wits in a rapid-fire argument. Ransome is wary of entertaining the serpent myth in any depth among his parishioners, while Cora, a budding naturalist, seized by the secular miracle of evolution, is keen to excavate the Essex soil for answers.
The novel is both lit and darkened by the sooty flame of the gothic: there’s creeping fog, an unnerving child, a doctor trialling barbaric new medical procedures, dark forests, and sensual love that is glorious and terrible. There are clever women and snakes, but this is not the Bible story you think you know. And there’s a mystery to be solved: is there really a prehistoric serpent come back to prowl the Essex Blackwater?
You feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Hilary Mantel in The Essex Serpent, channelled by Perry in some sort of Victorian seance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years. It’s the kind of work that makes you alive to the strangeness of the world and of our history.
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