The Guardian newspaper has called Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent ‘a compulsive novel of ideas’. But for me, it was much more than that. Perhaps there are several other features in this beautifully written book that stand out.
Without a doubt, Cora Seaborne has joined a long line of now famous female protagonists like Catherine Earnshaw and Little Dorrit that I fell in love with at a much younger age. In his praiseworthy review of her book in The Literary Review Jonathon Barnes has called her ‘striking, erudite, melancholic’ and as Perry describes her as ‘a tall handsome woman whose fine nose was speckled with freckles’.
The plot is a wonderful dark gothic tale set in the late 1890s of the (probable) return of a great mythical beast, a serpent to the sleepy little village of Aldwinter. Perhaps some prehistoric survivor ‘a living fossil . . . the ichthyosaur.’
There is a terrific sense of place. Perry is a painterly writer and the countryside comes alive under her pen. ‘the river runs bluer than it ever did before’ and ‘the air hums; the wasps are too drowsy to sting.’
And this is no ordinary love story. William Ransome the village vicar writing to Cora ‘I had come to the end of everything new - I had no more surprises in store, and I never sought any . . . But I seem to have learned you by heart, seemed at once to know you, had immediate liberty to say everything to you I could never had said elsewhere.’
I rarely on finishing a novel want to read it again immediately but I did with The Essex Serpent. And secondly, I want more: particularly Cora Seaborne one of the most wonderful, attractive and appealing characters I have engaged with in fiction for a long, long time.
©Jeff Guess 2017