Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

I think I went into this expecting the wrong thing, but I stayed for the beautiful prose, the incredibly well created Victorian setting and the infuriating characters. My problem normally with historical fiction, 19th century set specifically, is that the creation of the world is so flimsy and artificial, it's usually just best to read some actual Dickens or Wilkie Collins. The Essex Serpent, however, builds an England of the 1890s that is both authentic and subtle, its ambiance and characters seem believable and fit beautifully into the world. The prose was simply gorgeous, and that's what kept me reading.

Following the death of her abusive but somehow still loved husband, intelligent young widow Cora Seaborne discards the shackles and corsetry of London society and departs for marshy, coastal Essex. Cora departs, accompanied by her oddly independent and (to us) obviously ASD 11 year old son and his nanny/her companion Martha. 

Exploring the local area and enjoying her new freedom, Cora's peaceful period of recuperation is forgotten when she discovers a local rumour; a mythical, fearsome serpent engaged in a murderous rampage further up the estuary. The villagers are adamant that the serpent is to blame for a string of recent deaths and disappearances and that it represents a divine judgement upon them. A keen natural historian and Mary Anning superfan,Cora is determined to learn more and so departs from Colchester to Aldwinter to stay with the local Priest William Ransome, a friend of the dandy philanthropist Charles Ambrose. Cora is determined to discover the serpent, but William is resolutely convinced that it does not exist- a superstition of the locals and nonsense. Their burgeoning friendship is an unlikely contrast of faith and belief versus logic and reason from unlikely and contradicting angles. Naturally, they are attracted via their very oppositeness.

William has a radiantly consumptive wife, obsessed with the colour blue, and an interchangeable line up of children- his daughter Joanna is the only one really developed as she dabbles with witchcraft early on and is caught up in a The Falling esque collective fit of hysteria at school. He and Cora develop an odd relationship founded on mutual respect, a love of lively conversation and a burning desire that apparently lay undetected in either for an unlikely period of time.

I mostly liked the novel's collection of secondary characters and felt on the whole they were meticulously created and arranged, despite many of them having no proper function. I liked Banks, the Prophet of Doom and spearer of moles, he was such an odd, rural weirdo and brilliant touch of local superstitious colour. I liked the impish, gifted surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett, utterly and hopelessly in love with Cora, but I found her treatment of him pretty damning. Of course she has every right to not return his love, but she teases him and leads him on so much, his anguish was obvious and I sympathized with him enormously. His loss of his surgical gift is a tragedy- the book explores certain medical advancements of the late 19th century with a healthy mixture of wonder, suspicion and disbelief. Garratt's friend and colleague Spencer, doctor and philanthropist was a charming and endearing character, hopelessly rich and with no idea what to do with his money. I loved how Social Justice Warrior Martha managed to turn him onto the cause of poverty and slum clearance- she too knew he was in love with her, but dealt with it in a much more upfront, commendable and ultimately more effective manner.

I wasn't keen on Cora. She was a huge tease, exploiter of people's good natures and not a particularly attentive parent. She was jealous, flighty and rarely considered the feelings of others or the consequences of her actions. She was always described as "striking" despite her mannish clothes, which I read as "beautiful but doesn't know it". Yes she's curious, unorthodox and progressive, but I just couldn't warm to her. Martha, on the other hand, was an absolute queen. Slightly snide, upfront, getting stuff done, campaigning for what she believes in and fighting for change. I liked her suggestion that firm friendship and camaraderie were much more valuable and rewarding than romantic relationships. Go Martha. Speaking of Martha, I really liked the book's stance on contemporary social issues; the idea of the "deserving poor" will be so familiar to readers it's almost satire (Don't give the underclasses anything nice, they'll only break it or sell it for fags/booze/sky TV/tattoos)

Personally, I think the hype might have killed this for me- I think I went into it with the wrong expectations. I was looking for something wildly atmospheric, chilling and with either the Gothic supernatural of Frankenstein or the satisfyingly corporeal "case closed but what a ride" of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I think this just wasn't for me...

The Essex Serpent is undoubtedly a beautifully written, incredibly competent novel, filled with interesting characters with vivid personalities, progressive attitudes and suitably Victorian flavours, but one that ultimately left me disappointed. I wanted an eerie, haunting, atmospheric tale- unreliable narrators and was it real or was it all in the mind...There are sub-plots about unrequited love, social justice, the advancement of medicine, women's rights and superstition, but it lacks a of main course. Other readers evidently adore it and I'm glad it has been a roaring success, but unfortunately I can't fully count myself among its many admirers.

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