Sarah Perry’s 2016 The Essex Serpent is a fantasy, but not in the way you might expect from its cover.
Yes, it deals with the apparent reappearance of a mythical river monster in coastal Essex in 1893. Villagers are drowning, missing and hysterical by turns. There’s definitely something lurking beneath the water.
|The Essex Serpent (2016)|
But the true fantasy of the novel in its depiction of the nineteenth century. Instead of the oppressive and gloomy setting we’ve come to expect in women-focused historical fiction, Perry’s world is one of glorious possibility, where science and religion harmonise, widowhood brings freedom to roam around the beautifully-described countryside unharassed, and true friendships survive even the messiest of sexual encounters.
The blurb led me to expect a thrilling search for a living fossil, but instead what impressed me most was the novel’s strong impact on my visual imagination. Whether she’s describing rustics skinning moles, a consumptive surrounding herself with beautiful shades of blue, a delectable meal or a sheep stuck in the mud, Perry entrances with her language, pulling you into the pages.
|Sarah Perry (1979- )|
The Essex Serpent is also a master class in point of view, with Perry moving deftly between her characters’ heads, exposing the nuances and misunderstandings that come with many of our social interactions. Her omniscient voice is the most Victorian aspect of a book, which felt to me, despite critical comparisons of the novel to Dickens, Collins and more, largely modern.
Less successful was the central character, Cora Seaborne, who suffers from two issues often seen in protagonists—an underexplored tragic backstory and an inexplicable ability to make most of the supporting characters fall in love with her. Yet the eccentricity of Cora’s interests (in geology and evolution) and her well-rendered relationship with her (presumably autistic) son keep her interesting. I cared about her story despite these minor quibbles.
One thing I loved about the novel was Perry’s refusal to simplify—to make the characters who believed in religion foolish and those who pursue science bastions of rational progress. Every character in the novel believes in something—in the serpent, counting feathers, housing reform, open heart surgery. And that meant that, while the novel does play at the limits of credulity for a ‘realistic’ work of historical fiction, I kept believing to the end.