The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not only a Victorian story but in many ways feels like it was written in that time. That is how authentic it is. Set mainly in an Essex village, the story itself is like the slow flowing waters of the Thames estuary and is based on an old rumour terrifying the local populace of a monstrous serpent with wings that preyed on the surrounding villages.
Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and finding herself free of an oppressive husband, has moved from London to indulge in her larger interest in fossils and in particular the recent finds in the Blackwater marshes of Essex. Intrigued by stories of the serpent in newspapers, she dreams of the glory of finding a living fossil and is convinced the serpent is not a monster but a creature that has survived from another time. She moves to the village of Aldwinter where the recent sightings have taken place, hoping to spot the serpent.
In the village, Cora, now delightfully independent, having thrown away her corsets, comes up against the superstition that is swamping it. The local parson, William Ransome, who is surprisingly a rationalist believes that science and faith can coexist and refuses to accept the possibility of there being a serpent in any form. He is left dealing with not just his panicking parishioners but also his own feelings for Cora despite the divergence in their thinking and beliefs. There are a whole host of characters, all revolving around Cora and William and their families. Perry describes each one so completely and from various points of view that the reader is able to understand their perspective of the Essex Serpent sightings without being judgmental of their responses.
Ultimately this is novel about the clash between rationality and the kind of superstition that is capable of engulfing and rampaging through societies. The serpent symbolises different things for different people and each character sees in it what they want to; a scientific curiosity, a demon sent for the retribution of the villagers, a story inciting doubt. derision and contempt, or a symbol of the fall from Eden or even that of the serpent of healing entwining the sceptre of Aeschylus. Whether or not the serpent was real is left to the reader to believe whatever it is that they want to believe.
Set over a period of one year, the novel describes the seasons in lush detail. Through Cora, a compulsive rambler and walker, Perry gives the reader a sensory experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the area. Somehow just the visuals of Cora striding across the marshes on her own feels emancipating. This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed slowly. We were planning to review it earlier but took a long time to read it because of the need to go back and re read some of the paragraphs just for their expression and language. Through the backdrop of an almost gothic story, the reader is lulled into a quiet sort of beauty. Though it won a whole bunch of awards, we are puzzled as to why the book was not longlisted for the Booker prize.