By Jennifer Senior / New York Times News Service
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Custom House/William Morrow,422 pages) is a novel of almost insolent ambition—lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate. Set in the Victorian era, it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home.
Recapitulations of plot are often dull as oats, but this novel, which took top prize at this year’s British Book Awards, spills over with so much intrigue that a plot summary can’t be helped, nor should potential readers be spared the pleasure.
The book opens with a death, but we do not mourn the deceased (an abusive man, though at least a rich one). It’s his widow, Cora Seaborne, we care about. She ditches her whalebone corset for an oversize coat to go fossil-hunting in the Blackwater marshes of Essex with her son.
He’s clearly on the autism spectrum, even if it’s never directly said, and his watchful presence is a source of both anguish and comfort to those around him.
Cora blossoms in widowhood. It’s a pleasure to behold. Her husband was a monster. But not as big a monster as the one that’s haunting Essex. It seems that a giant sea dragon—“some kind of leviathan with wings of leather and a toothy grin”, in the words of an amused Londoner—is making its first appearance in the estuary since 1669. (A true scare that year, according to an author’s note. You can see the original pamphlet of warning at the British Library.) The citizens are terrified, swearing the serpent has stolen their children and broken the necks of grown men.
Those with unbroken necks go to extreme lengths to protect themselves. A weathered old grump named Cracknell—he wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Annie Proulx—skins moles and strings them along his fence like chili pepper lights to keep the beast at bay. “The point is not what I see, but what I feel,” he explains to the local parson, William Ransome, who is married to a Stella, a woman as warm and radiant as her name suggests.
The Victorian era was one of tremendous social and scientific progress. But it was one of woo-woo spiritualism, too, with mesmerists entrancing the ailing, and mediums trying to coax conversation from the dead. Tales of monsters and supernatural doings—by Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker, to name a better-known few—sat on bookshelves alongside volumes by Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. That a serpent should resurface at just the moment scales were falling away from people’s eyes is probably no accident. Yet, Ransome has no patience for the occult. He doesn’t speak much of the Devil, either. He’s secretly put out by the parishioners who believe that the serpent has been unloosed on Essex as punishment for their sins. (“Where are your wits?” he asks Cracknell.) If this strikes you as an unusual view for a parson, you are not alone. When Ransome and Cora meet—the moment that things become really interesting—she grills him about the creature in the estuary. Why shouldn’t it be taken as a sign?
“Our God is a god of reason and order,” he tells her, “not of visitations in the night!”
An electric current runs between them.
There are enough love triangles in The Essex Serpent to confound Euclid himself. But the essential one, of Cora and Stella and Ransome, never reads as tawdry or tiresome, largely because all parties have plenty of love to go around. Besides, Cora is too independent-minded, too stubborn and too injured to lure Ransome away from his marriage; Stella is too ill (with consumption) to be left; and Perry has deliberately (and wisely) made Cora the opposite of a traditional feminine threat—she walks for miles, has the appetite of a longshoreman.
Perry’s writing engages the senses. You can almost smell the brine, the oyster, the “secretive scent of fungus clinging to the oak”. When Cracknell shows up at church in a coat crawling with earwigs, you’ll spend pages squirming, wishing to pick them off; when the wet air creeps in, you’ll feel it in your own bones. “There’s a penetrating dampness coming from the walls,” Cora writes to Ransome. “It feels personal.”
But the real abundance in The Essex Serpent is of feelings between characters, not all of them sentimental. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in which a man and a woman quarrel quite so much, and quite so forcefully, without something devastating coming of it. “They sharpen themselves on each other,” Perry writes of Cora and Ransome, “each by turn is blade and whetstone.”
At times, their arguments are a bit heavy-handed, their themes too bluntly expressed. But Perry is generally light on her toes. She has to be. It takes a gentle touch to create the proper awkwardness of two people in love. “I’ve never liked the look of you [do you mind?],” Ransome writes to Cora. “But I seem to have learned you by heart.”
All Credit Goes There : Source link