Monday, October 3, 2016
"The Essex Serpent" by Sarah Perry
Every now and then a book comes out that you know is something special. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is that kind of book. It truly stands out. In fact, there is talk that it will be nominated for many literary prizes. I wouldn't be surprised as it is a book of stunning originality. What I love most is the vivid portrait that emerges of Victorian England at the crossroads of science, religion, and superstition. It is a book that helps us understand what a complex and fascinating time this was. The events of the plot occur under the shadow of a legendary monster that has supposedly returned to Essex, England. This gives the novel a gothic quality and creates an eerie mood that permeates the entire book. While telling her tale, Perry conjures up some of the most memorable atmosphere you will ever encounter.
The story begins in 1890's London where Cora Seaborne has just lost her husband. She is relieved as he was a cruel and unpleasant man and she is happy that her life can start anew. Like so many other Victorians, she has caught the scientific fervour of the age and rushes off to Essex in search of the rumored Essex Serpent which she thinks may be a previously undiscovered species. She heads to Aldwinter where she meets the rector William Ransome. He has been struggling to calm down his parishioners who are terrorized by tales of the serpent's carnage. She is accompanied by her autistic son Francis and her socialist companion Martha. Cora arrives as the the community's fear is at its height and witnesses mass hysteria amongst the people in the village. The clash between superstition, science and religion has riled everyone up.
Cora and William develop a powerful friendship borne out of mutual respect, though they disagree on almost everything. She is a wealthy amateur naturalist and he is a man of faith. They come at the world from opposing viewpoints. They form a relationship based on ideas and vibrant discussions. There are many scenes with the two of them striding though the countryside in heated argument. It's not hard for the reader to imagine sparks will begin to fly between these two. Cora grows fond of William's wife Stella and his children. Stella is dying of consumption. Her illness is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book to learn about the vast research Sarah Perry did on every element of Victorian life she writes about, including consumption. It's very impressive. As Cora becomes entangled in William's family life, the two of them fall in love.
There are other love stories in the book, though mostly unrequited. Doctor Luke Garrett, aka "The Imp," is in love with Cora from page one, but she sees him only as a friend. He is the doctor who took care of her husband during his illness. He is the most talented surgeon in London and the description of him performing experimental heart surgery is riveting. His character is beautifully drawn in an almost Dickensian way. As are all of the other characters; they are eccentric, fascinating and complex people whom you won't soon forget. And like Dickens' books, this novel deals with the social issues of the time, including poverty and the slums of London.
I loved this book. Through its incredible characters and haunting atmosphere the late Victorian era comes to life. So many stereotypes are challenged by this story and Cora Seaborne may be one of the great Victorian heroines. The fears and emotions stirred up by the mythic serpent are symbolic of deeper things, all of which get addressed. As in real life, there are no easy answers for the characters, but their search for the meaning of life is the universal bond that unites us all. The way Sarah Perry sees it, the Victorians were not so very different from us.