Last year in the United Kingdom, Sarah Perry’s “The Essex Serpent” won awards and acclaim. The book slithered its way to the top of the bestseller lists; its sumptuous and suspenseful story coiled tightly around readers’ hearts. It was in bookstores and book clubs, on bedside tables and library waiting lists. Now the English author’s second novel has been published in America. But can it repeat its success with a new and wider reading public?
It certainly deserves to. However, its simplified synopsis — an English village is terrorized by the return of a mythical monster — somewhat sells the book short. Perry neither dabbles in Gothic horror nor dwells on a community in crisis. Instead she tracks individual lives and connections, explores hearts and minds — specifically aching hearts and inquiring minds. The result is a novel that triumphs on every level, whether in its rich, evocative prose or its authentic Victorian detail, its credible, multifaceted characters or its high-stakes drama.
Cora Seaborne is a young widow who leaves behind London and the shadow of her overbearing husband by moving to the Essex coast with her “baffling boy” Francis and her companion Martha. She learns of “strange news” in the village of Aldwinter: The so-called Essex serpent, last seen in 1669, has resurfaced from the murk of the Blackwater estuary and killed a man. Cora, a naturalist, becomes fascinated and sets out to learn more about this “living fossil.”
Cora is the book’s protagonist and her perspective dominates, but around her Perry assembles other characters and rotates their points of view. Chief among them are Luke Garrett, a brilliant if unconventional surgeon who is besotted with Cora; Martha and her admirer George Spencer, a pair of socialists committed to improving living and working conditions in “the whole great grinding enterprise of London”; and William Ransome, the local vicar who is appalled at the rumor of a “scarebeast” and the ease at which his parishioners have succumbed to “godless superstition.”
Perry’s cast takes stock of a series of uncanny happenings — snatched animals, mysterious illnesses, phantom ships; vanishings, drownings, “night-shinings.” Eventually, William concedes to Cora that there is a hostile force about. More important, he is moved to confess his true feelings for her: “I seem to have learned you by heart.”
“The Essex Serpent” mines the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, the antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James and the social woes that run deep in Dickens’ later works. The book’s focal point, though, is Perry’s network of relationships, not least the dynamic interplay between polar opposites Cora and William. “We both speak of illuminating the world,” Cora explains, “but we have different sources of light.” Faith and reason try to outshine one another. Love proves to be the brightest light of all.
Perry likened writing her novel to a “possession.” Reading it, we find ourselves under a similar mesmerizing spell.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Essex Serpent
By: Sarah Perry.
Publisher: Custom House, 418 pages, $26.99.