Title: ”The Essex Serpent”
Writer: Sarah Perry
Publishing House: Serpent’s Tail
Publication Date: May 27th 2016
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Come tomorrow, if you like, to the grave. I said I’d go alone, but perhaps that’s the point; perhaps we are always alone, no matter the company we keep.’’
This novel is as complex, as beautiful and mesmerizing as its cover. It is astonishing, an exciting, majestic literary journey. It deserves all the recognition it gets and then some. It is plain and simple one of the most beautiful, unique novels I’ve ever read. There will be no ‘’but’’ or ‘’or’’ in my review. ‘The Essex Serpent’ is perfection…
Cora Seaborne- a highly symbolic surname- is a young widow with an interest- nay, an adoration- in science and in the workings of nature. She cannot stand anything she considers as superstition but is always keen to learn. Prompted by a friendly couple, she travels to the parish of Aldwinter to experience the frenzy that has come with the rumors of an appearance by the Essex Serpent, a devilish Loch Ness-like monster that has returned after almost 200 years. Her meeting with Will Ransome, the local vicar, will bring forth all kinds of debates between them, all kinds of contradictions between the world we think we know and the one we aren’t able to see.
Perry focuses on three issues. The contrast between Science and Religion. She doesn’t take sides, a token of how skillful she is. She respects both and lets the reader decide. Then, we have the Victorians’ obsession with everything that has to do with the supernatural and the occult and the misunderstood position of the women in the society of the era. She stresses that not all women were victims of the restrictions and the norms, but they had to face disbelief, scorn and accusations as the price for their freedom. For Cora, freedom comes through the death of her husband, a man as tyrannical as he was cold, whose personality can be traced in Francis, Cora’s son, who is an intriguing child, but highly unlikable.
‘’Girls and boys come out to play…The moon does shine as bright as day.’’
The children form a main point of view in the book. Joanna, Naomi, Francis see the world in their own eyes. They experience the phenomena in personal ways which couldn’t be more different and diverse and the interpretation sets quite a few things in motion. The omens in the community are numerous. People falling victims of a strange illness, young girls experience a fit of unusually lively laughter, the moon is full and red, the crops are failing, the residents sprain their ankles all too easily. The children believe in the signs and try to protect the world from changing into something they don’t wish to know.
‘’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils.’’
Does the serpent exist? The smell is foul, the sounds otherworldly, the feeling of uneasiness and restlessness has been plaguing the community. Each resident finds the chance to blame everyone else but themselves and stories from the past haven’t been forgotten. Perhaps, the serpent stands as a symbol for the community’s narrow-mindedness and fear of progress.. Their dusty lives constantly influence the young ones and when Cora or Luke try to put some sense into their heads, they’re scorned and attacked. These are people who fear darkness but in truth are in love with it. They don’t want it to go away because it provides them with an excuse to live.
‘’We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.’’
Cora and Will are worlds apart, at first glance. Cora is the naturalist, the science lover, the one who looks at nature and sees causes and effects. Will sees the divine presence, the Hand of God released from medieval superstitions. They argue. They disagree and grow closer, their banter is full of well-drawn arguments (and sexual tension…) but they respect each other’s views even if they’re too proud to admit it. They are against all prejudices, religious and social, but deep down they’re helpless. They try to shed their skin and come to terms with the other’s reality, but this requires a kind of sacrifice they’re not willing to commit. And they’re trapped in a world where the mob cannot be freed by their fears and nightly terrors.
‘’There was a crooked man’’, he said, ‘’who walked a crooked mile.’’
Same thing happens with Luke whose appearance makes people suspicious of his intentions. He is a doctor, highly skilled, highly intelligent, whose offers are denied out of terror. He speaks outright and faces adversity and hostility from minds that are buried in the mud where the Serpent resides. Luke is the most fascinating character along with Cora. Will, on the other hand, well…not so much…
Will is a coward. He denies his moments of clarity and is afraid of his feelings. Cora makes him a complete, rounded character. When he’s alone, he becomes a shadow and yet, he cannot see it or refuse to do so. Cora shakes his mundane life, but he prefers mediocrity. His wife, Stella is a pathetic woman. A figure created out of boredom, docility and piousness in the extreme. Martha, Cora’s maid, is a shrew in heh most negative way possible. She’s full of anger for everything and everyone, she hates everyone’s existence and believes she has to constantly speak her mind (which is usually wrong) and interfere in Cora’s life in a presumptuous, rude, vulgar manner. Stella and Martha required a lot of patience from me in order to avoid skipping their pages…
I don’t need to stress how exceptional Perry’s writing is. Poetic, lyrical, dark, Gothic. There is stream of consciousness at times, there are diary entries, correspondence. There are passages with descriptions that seemed to have jumped straight out of a tale by Poe. The language may remind you of the Bronte sisters. There are bloody images- with a Viking blood eagle reference- and there is also a hymn to the beauty of the foreboding nature. Rooks and ruins, waves and the moon. The dialogue is perfection, the moments when Perry describes the actions and the state of mind of our main characters simultaneously contain some of the most exquisite pieces of writing I’ve recently found in a novel (and I have found a plethora…). It gives an atmosphere of darkness, an eerie feeling that something is about to happen. One of our characters will cross a personal limit or a new wound will occur.. Who knows…Perry definitely knows how to create anticipation and this is one of the most important aspects in Gothic Fiction, particularly. The Author’s Notes contain a ton of fascinating suggestive reads and they are jewels in themselves.
For me, this books is as close to perfect as it can get. Let yourself wonder in a dark coastal town and look the serpent in the eye…