Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (2016)
Perhaps because the nineteenth century saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, giving us an unprecedented number of imagined narratives about daily life and relationships, there’s a particular fascination in trying to go “behind the curtain” of the period and discern what the Victorians did NOT say in their fiction. Due to societal expectations and conventions, there were many things they could not talk about directly (at least in English — perhaps Continental fiction was more frank). What would Victorian novelists write if this secret history could be revealed, and what would we learn about their real thoughts and feelings?
In more recent times, this question has given rise to compelling novels by the likes of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters, among others. They try to embody aspects of the narrative voice of a bygone age, while retaining a modern sensibility that illuminates the past in a new light. A new entry in this seductive sub-genre is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which takes on the clash of science, faith, and superstition that erupted in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Symbol and focus of this cultural turmoil is the mysterious Essex Serpent, which had reputedly been sighted in a seaside town centuries ago, and now seems to be appearing again. Is it a judgment? A scientific marvel? A relic from ancient times? A supernatural warning, or wonder? Or something far more banal and ordinary, given fantastic clothing by the ever-active human imagination?
This is a novel of many characters, switching back and forth between different points of view: a young widow with an abusive past and a yen for paleontology; her son, who baffles her with his strange rituals and emotional distance; their working-class radical nurse-companion; a twisted genius of a surgeon; his less-brilliant, but extremely kind friend; a brisk country vicar struggling to conquer superstition in his parish and unholy longings in himself; his tubercular wife, beset by visions; and many others.
The premise sounded irresistible to me, yet even though The Essex Serpent had all the ingredients for a book I ought to love, I had a hard time warming to it somehow. Perhaps this was partly because the constant switching of perspective also made it hard for me to settle into the story. Certain threads and relationships were not developed as much as I would have liked, as the zigzagging plot kept dropping one to pick up another. I remained oddly distant from the characters, and sometimes had the sensation of being told rather than shown about their characteristics; they felt intellectually constructed out of era-appropriate ingredients (paleontology, advances in medical science, religious doubt, consumption, sexual repression, etc.) rather than spontaneously living.
Unsettling is definitely what The Essex Serpent is all about, though, so perhaps this is an appropriate effect. And at the end, suddenly, the characters came together in a way that surprised me, bringing them to life more vividly. If the book had gone on from there for another hundred pages or so, I might have felt more connected to it.
I don’t know why the alchemy of this book did not quite work for me, and you may have a completely different reaction. I hope you will read it to find out for yourself, and please let me know what you thought.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this book. For more information, visit the tour page or click on the links below.
About Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.