Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s luminous novel TheEssex Serpent, set in Victorian England still getting used to the ideas of Mr. Darwin and struggling with various issues of social reform, is a story about religion and science, faith and delusion, and all of their various intersections. It’s also a story about love of all kinds, from the familial to platonic, from the conventional to the decidedly not.

Widow Cora Seaborne, married too young to a cruel and overbearing man who sought to shape her into the image of his perfect wife, is not in mourning. She feels, instead, freed and light; taking her maid and companion Martha and her young son Francis, heavily coded by the narrative as autistic but within the story merely considered very strange, she decamps from London to the Essex countryside, thinking to mimic her heroine Mary Anning and go fossil hunting, perhaps discover a new species. Rumors of a “winged serpent” haunting the nearby Blackmarch bring her to Colchester, where she is introduced to the local reverend William Ransome, his delicately lovely wife Stella, and their three children.

William, a man of paired rationality and true faith, is trying to keep his flock from descending into outright hysteria over the supposed existence of the serpent, which is seen as God’s punishment for their ills. Cora, meanwhile, a woman of pure science and intellect, who wears a man’s coat and eschews the feminine arts altogether, is convinced not only that the serpent exists but also that the creature might well be a living ichthyosaur. At odds with each other but drawn to each other regardless, this unlikely pair form an immediate, and very deep, intellectual friendship which begins unpredictably to deepen toward love, even as William’s wife begins to succumb both to tuberculosis and a delusional fascination with the color blue brought on by her illness. 

The language in this novel is rich and assured, imagery which captivates the reader as much as the rumors of the serpent captivate the small town which it haunts. Perry adroitly manages several characters and subplots, weaving them together into an enchanting tapestry of love, faith, naturalism, and family which never disappoints. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Diane Setterfield will find much here to enjoy.

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