Book review by Melanie Cutting
British author Sarah Perry’s second book is an immensely, intensely satisfying read, containing all— or at least most of— the elements I look for in a novel: just the right amount of action; genuine (as opposed to manipulative) emotion; a suspenseful mystery; diverse and engaging characters; humour; an exotic locale; fascinating information previously unknown to me; and, perhaps most importantly, a beautifully fluid writing style that evokes the time and place perfectly. In short, I really loved this book, something I thought I’d never say about a work of historical fiction!
It is certainly a credit to the considerable story-telling skills of its author that this book captivates the reader from the very first of its 400-plus pages, and holds us in thrall throughout. Set in 1893 Essex County, situated in southeast England between London and the North Sea, the book opens with a wonderfully atmospheric passage introducing both the Blackwater estuary and the mood that permeates the story. “He thinks he sees—is certain he sees—the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone…There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time — implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last…yes, all along, it’s been there waiting, and at last it’s found him out. But then the wind lifts and tugs the covering cloud, and the shy moon shows her face.” The Essex Serpent, or at least the idea of it, has haunted this area for over 200 years, much like the Loch Ness monster to the north. Rumours abound about its sighting, but the mystery persists. Local clergyman William Ransome is at pains to dispel the mounting fear among his Aldwinter parishioners, but it is an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, his wife, the ethereally beautiful Stella, is unwell, and growing steadily worse. Enter recently widowed Cora Seaborne, with her somewhat challenging son Francis, accompanied by Cora’s companion and former nanny Martha. Although not exactly a “merry widow”, it is clear that the marriage was not a happy one, and Cora is delighted to be away from her luxurious life in London and its memories of her remote and occasionally sadistic husband. An amateur paleontologist, Cora finds the area to be a paradise of fossils, and one in which she can dress comfortably in boots and trousers, hiking to her heart’s content in towns with such evocative names such as Chelmsford, Clacton-on-Sea, and World’s End. In due time she meets Reverend Ransome, and they begin a friendship that seems to centre on spirited debates about the merits of religion versus science. Despite their obvious spiritual and intellectual differences, and the fact that Will Ransome is a happily married husband and father of two, he and Cora are soon experiencing the giddy elation of forbidden love, albeit disguised as friendship.
Elevating the story well above what might have been a mere Harlequin romance type of tale are the author’s lyrical prose, her cast of supporting characters, and the many parallels she draws between the Victorian era in Great Britain, and our own 21st century reality. First, the supporting characters: Dr. Luke Garrett, aka The Imp, a London physician and friend of Cora, who is far beyond his time in practicing “gonzo”, experimental medicine; Martha, the bisexual ex- nanny and budding feminist/labour union activist; Francis, Cora’s quirky and withdrawn (read: autistic) teenage son, with whom Cora struggles to establish a loving relationship; Dr. George Spencer, Luke’s faithful friend and less adventurous medical colleague; Will Ransome’s children, 8 year old John and 12 year old Joanna, and her flighty friend Naomi who seek out adventure despite the looming threat of the Essex Serpent; the wealthy but kindly couple Charles and Katherine Ambrose who have introduced Cora to her newfound life in Essex; cranky eccentric Charles Cracknell, whose constant companions are his goats Gog and Magog, and the earwigs who have found a permanent home in his favourite coat; Edward Burton, the budding architect and grateful recipient of Luke Garrett’s groundbreaking surgical technique that has saved his life and led to his introduction to Martha; and last but not least Stella, Ransome’s sickly wife, who sees her world in shades of blue, and seems to get more lovely as she becomes more gravely ill. Although apparently aware of the growing feelings of attachment between Will and Cora, Stella shows some modern-day forebearance in this regard, and openly encourages their companionship, knowing that her illness, which turns out to be tuberculosis (consumption), will be removing her from this earthly plane sooner rather than later.
Two important questions infuse the story: first, will Cora and Will consummate their feelings despite the mitigating circumstances, and second, is the Essex Serpent real or a creature of myth? How, then, to explain the mysterious disappearances and erratic behaviour of the townsfolk? Only time will tell…
The book is divided into four parts, each with a heading drawn from the actual 1669 pamphlet Strange News Out of Essex, which brought the “presence” of the serpent to public attention. The book is further subdivided into the months January through November, a handy way to keep track of the action. Another literary technique used to excellent effect by the author is the inclusion of several chapters in the form of letters between the key players.
The Essex Serpent was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and was named Waterstone’s 2016 Book of the Year. It is available from the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.