Regular readers may have gathered by now how I feel about Twitter hype. All too often it leads to disappointment. Having already read and admired After Me Comes the Flood, though, it seemed likely that at least some of the love being poured on Sara Perry’s second novel was entirely genuine, and so it proved to be. It’s now joined the select band of the best books I’ve read in 2016. Set in 1885, it’s the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around the village of Aldwinter.
On New Year’s Eve, a young man – somewhat the worse for wear – staggers home from the pub and wonders about taking a dip in the Blackwater River. Next morning, he’s found with his head twisted round a hundred and eighty degrees, drowned in the mud. Soon rumours circulate about the Essex Serpent, back stalking the marshes and wreaking havoc, killing a goat here, drowning another young man there. Will Ransome, the local parson, refuses to preach from the pulpit about this monstrous apparition, despite the increasing collective hysteria taking hold of his congregation. A man of faith, he’s well acquainted with current theories of science and rationality, convinced there’s a perfectly logical explanation. To preach about it would be to taint God with superstition. In London, the newly widowed Cora Seagrove hears of the serpent and thinks it may be a ‘living fossil’. Liberated from the constant cruelty of her husband she decides to take her son and his nanny – Cora’s dear companion – to Colchester where she bumps into old friends who suggest she stays with the Ransome family in Aldwinter. Unbeknownst to her, Cora has already met Will, although hardly in the best of circumstances. When they meet again, it’s as if there’s a flash of understanding between them. So begins a passionate friendship in which these two will debate all manner of things.
The Essex Serpent is a novel of ideas all wrapped up in a stonkingly good bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose. All those nineteenth-century themes are present, correct and deftly woven in: science, religion, medical advance, philanthropy, education and above all, women’s place in society. Distant echoes of our own world sound throughout – veterans of another Afghan war on London’s streets, a chasm between the rich and the poor. Perry’s characters are vividly drawn: Cora is a triumph with her constantly questing curiosity, her openness to the world, uncaring about what others think of her tramping across the marshes in her mannish clothes. The relationship between Cora and Will could easily have descended into melodrama but Perry is far too clever for that, neatly avoiding a clichéd ending. The opening chapter with its repetition of ‘time’ calling to mind ‘fog’ in Bleak House feels like a nod to Dickens as do several characters – Charles Ambrose, the rich benefactor who assuages his guilt but has no wish to sully his hands with the poor, and Thomas Taylor, the beggar who carefully composes his face so as to best rook passers-by – but while comparisons with Dickens seem apt there’s nothing of the caricature about Perry’s well-rounded characters, nothing simplified about the ideas Will and Cora debate. It’s hard not to gush about this novel. It’s a glittering, thought-provoking and marvellous piece of fiction. Surely impossible for it not to be garlanded with prizes.