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Monday, January 9, 2017

Review of THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry


4 Stars
I first heard of this novel when I discovered it shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. 

The book is set in the 1890s in the fictional town of Aldwinter in the Essex marshes.  The duration is one year.  A sea monster is believed to be swimming in the Blackwater estuary and many people live in fear.

Cora Seagrave, a widow and aspiring Mary Anning, arrives in the hope of seeing a living fossil.  She thinks that perhaps an ichthyosaur has somehow survived since the Paleozoic era.  Cora is accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis.  In Aldwinter, Cora is introduced to William Ransome, the rector, and his family, including his wife Stella.  Sparks soon fly between Will and Cora – in more than one way.

One of the strengths is characterization.  Cora and Will, as well as a number of minor characters, are developed into fully round characters.  For me, Cora is the most interesting.  She is the exact opposite of a stereotypical Victorian woman.  She is rich and attractive but is unconcerned about her appearance; most often, she wears a man’s coat.  She is independent and inquisitive.  A friend describes her as “an unusual woman.  I think of her as having an exceptional – really I might even say a masculine! – intelligence; she is something of a naturalist.”  Rebuilding her life after an unhappy marriage, she sometimes becomes rather pushy:  “She has gone blundering about, wishing no harm and causing much.”  She even tells Will as much, feeling she muddled their relationship from the beginning:  “’I go blundering about.  I forced myself in.  I might as well have broken a window!’”  Cora is a dynamic character who grows and changes as indicated by her observation that “far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths.”

The book touches on a number of issues, science versus religion being a major one.  Cora and Will introduce this conflict when they first meet; Cora says, “’We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.’”  She argues the Essex serpent is “’neither rumour nor a call to repentance, but merely a living thing, to be examined and catalogued and explained.’”  The vicar counters that the monster is “’the whispers of a village which has lost sight of the constancy of their Creator.  It’s my duty to guide them back to comfort and certainty.’”  Cora admires Darwin but Will dismisses his theories, admitting Darwin may be clever and much in his theories may prove to be true, “’But tomorrow there will be another theory, and another; one will be discredited and the other praised; they’ll fall from fashion and be resurrected a decade later with added footnotes and a new edition.  Everything is changing, Mrs. Seaborne, and much of it for the better: but what use is it to try and stand on quicksand.  We will stumble and fall, and in falling become prey to folly and darkness – these rumours of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tether us to everything that’s good and certain.’”

I am not the first to have been reminded of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”:  “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”  The novel explores the spiritual and intellectual struggles of the late Victorian period.  Besides the clash between science and faith, socialism, feminism, the plight of the lower classes, the power and fear of change, and medical advances are some of the topics raised. 

The book blurb states that “this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.”  Romantic love is certainly explored; there are at least three love triangles and several broken hearts.  But friendship is central too:  Cora’s friendship with Martha, and Luke’s friendship with George.  One friendship even saves a person from committing suicide, but there is a warning that friends are sometimes taken for granted:  “It was as if his presence was so constant, and so taken for granted, that he’d come to be barely noticed.”   The consequences of a broken friendship are illustrated in the relationship between two teenaged girls.  Parental love is also featured, especially in Cora’s love for her son whose autism prevents him from demonstrating affection; Francis sees his mother as “a constant, and so seemed hardly worth troubling over.” 

I certainly recommend this book.  It excels in conveying a strong sense of time and place and in creating fully developed, realistic characters who struggle with personal change and the changes occurring in their world.