Is The Es­sex Ser­pent the best book of the year?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By CHAR­LOTTE RUNCIE PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

‘There are no mys­ter­ies any more,” writes Dr Luke Gar­rett to his friend Cora Seaborne in The Es­sex Ser­pent. He is wrong, of course, and thank good­ness. This ir­re­sistible novel, Sarah Perry’s fol­low-up to her ac­claimed de­but After Me Comes the Flood, is all about the an­cient and mod­ern mys­ter­ies that sur­round us, that seep into our bones and keep us awake at night, and have done ever since Bri­tain was walked by long-ex­tinct beasts be­fore his­tory be­gan.

In 1669, a pam­phlet was pub­lished in Lon­don pro­claim­ing STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ES­SEX. It re­ported sto­ries of a fly­ing ser­pent that had sup­pos­edly been killing farm an­i­mals and hor­ri­fy­ing the peo­ple of Saf­fron Walden. Perry takes this tale and imag­ines an Es­sex vil­lage in the late 19th cen­tury, when ru­mours of the ser­pent re­turn once TheEs­sexSer­pent. more to give chil­dren night­mares; the lo­cal rec­tor, Wil­liam Ran­some, is left strug­gling to keep his flock from go­ing mad with fright.

In the midst of it all is Cora Seaborne, a force­ful widow from Lon­don, who heads to Es­sex in search of ad­ven­ture with her quiet and un­usual son and her po­lit­i­cally minded fe­male com­pan­ion, whom she adores. The novel is a love af­fair set in a tu­mul­tuous Bri­tain: Dar­win­ism is erod­ing the na­tion’s faith; ev­ery­where, there is so­cial and sci­en­tific up­heaval.

Perry’s Vic­to­ri­ana is the most fresh-feel­ing I can re­mem­ber, with none of the awk­wardly crammed-in re­search that can plague the con­tem­po­rary his­tor­i­cal novel. Her prose is eco­nom­i­cal, in­sis­tent and of­ten beau­ti­ful. She draws out what the late 19th-cen­tury folk had in com­mon with us: it’s a novel where Lon­don­ers take the Tube, snack on choco­late, tease each other over glasses of wine and worry about house prices.

The tone is a mas­ter­stroke, al­low­ing Perry to slip un­der the sur­face of ev­ery­day life and into the depths of its hid­den places, where 19th- cen­tury nov­el­ists would have fear to tread. Perry’s women have ex­tra­mar­i­tal sex and gen­er­ally do ex­actly as they please without fear of Vic­to­rian nar­ra­tive jus­tice. You won’t find a young girl suc­cumb­ing to the charms of a rich man and end­ing up preg­nant and dead, for in­stance.

Perry has a flair for di­a­logue, too. The spar­ring con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Cora and Ran­some, in par­tic­u­lar, feel ex­actly like over­hear­ing two of your clever­est friends match wits in a rapid-fire ar­gu­ment. Ran­some is wary of en­ter­tain­ing the ser­pent myth in any depth among his parish­ioners, while Cora, a bud­ding nat­u­ral­ist, seized by the sec­u­lar mir­a­cle of evo­lu­tion, is keen to ex­ca­vate the Es­sex soil for an­swers.

The novel is both lit and dark­ened by the sooty flame of the gothic: there’s creep­ing fog, an un­nerv­ing child, a doc­tor tri­alling bar­baric new med­i­cal pro­ce­dures, dark forests, and sen­sual love that is glo­ri­ous and ter­ri­ble. There are clever women and snakes, but this is not the Bi­ble story you think you know. And there’s a mys­tery to be solved: is there re­ally a pre­his­toric ser­pent come back to prowl the Es­sex Black­wa­ter?

You feel the in­flu­ences of Mary Shel­ley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dick­ens and Hi­lary Man­tel in The Es­sex Ser­pent, chan­nelled by Perry in some sort of Vic­to­rian seance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years. It’s the kind of work that makes you alive to the strange­ness of the world and of our his­tory.

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The book cover

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