A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Late Victorian London is a place in flux. It’s been two or three decades since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the world of scientific investigation, particularly in the natural sciences, has expanded exponentially. Not only that, but women – women! – are becoming increasingly independent and engaging in those sciences more and more. What a time to be alive!
Cora Seaborne’s abusive husband is no longer alive, much to her relief. She is now not just free from emotional and, it is suggested, physical violence, but free to devote most of her time to her passion for naturalism. She leaves London for Essex with her loyal companion Martha and her son Francis, an emotionally distant boy with various unusual obsessions, and who today may well be diagnosed with autism. There has recently been an earthquake and who knows what treasures it might have thrown up?
When she gets there she is introduced, through old friends, to a local vicar in a small village on the Blackwater estuary. His community is in the throes of mass hysteria, centred around the alleged return of The Essex Serpent, a huge beast of the sea, last seen in the 1660s, who is apparently punishing the village by drowning livestock, taking children, and killing a full grown man on New Year’s Eve. Cora is immediately fascinated, and while she doesn’t believe in the mythical properties of the creature, she does wonder whether it might be a ‘living fossil’, a long forgotten species of giant sea animal that has reared its head in time to be rediscovered by her. The vicar, William Ransome, is deeply frustrated with the who situation, lamenting the parish’s increasing distance from what he sees as true faith.
Cora and William strike up an unlikely friendship and they both attempt to dismantle the local hysteria from different angles. They have long written conversations, debating ideas around science, philosophy, and religion, never agreeing but becoming increasingly reliant on one another. This intense relationship plays out among a cast of characters that is idiosyncratic and beautifully rendered: Martha and Francis, Luke – a surgeon whose love for Cora is unrequited, despite the obvious intellectual compatibilities between them, Luke’s friend Spencer – embarrassingly wealthy and in love with socialist Martha, and William’s winsome consumptive wife, Stella, and the Ransome children. We also meet the village’s local characters in various states of desperation about the Serpent, who may be more minor characters but are just as well written as the main cast.
This novel is a Gothic delight with a bit of everything. I genuinely couldn’t put it down (one morning my breakfast ended up in the bin as I got distracted reading as it cooked and I burned it). It is intelligent, absorbing, and is unafraid to leave some things to the imagination. If I have any criticism it is that one strand of subplot, centred around the battle for better housing in London’s slums, felt slightly crowbarred in among everything else. The pudding wasn’t necessarily overegged, but even the most sumptuous novel can occasionally be a little too rich. And sumptuous is just what The Essex Serpent otherwise is; frankly I’m stunned it didn’t at least make the Booker longlist this year. It may only be the beginning of September, but I’ll be stunned if I read a better book this year.
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2016). ISBN 978-1781255445. RRP £14.99.