'The Essex Serpent' book review: a dark love story laced with Gothic mystery
Jane Austen meets Hilary Mantel and Darwin in Sarah Perry's novel of powerful beauty
"We'll suffer the attentions of a hundred parsons for the sake of one sea-dragon," Cora Seaborne gaily declares near the start of this serpentine tale. Little does she realise that just one parson will raise as much hell in her own world as rumoured sightings of a terrible ancient creature raise in the lives of superstitious villagers.
It is the end of the 19th century and science is fashionable, but religion still holds murky sway in late-Victorian England. Cora, a rebellious young widow of the upper classes, has many of the characteristics of a Jane Austen heroine. She holds intellectual sparring matches with men, wears manky old coats and muddy boots and charms everyone she meets despite her eccentricities.
Cora's son Francis displays all the symptoms of what today would be diagnosed as autism - rigid, compulsive and highly intelligent, he cannot express emotion but goes to sleep "reciting the Fibonacci series as another child might a fairy tale". He is an enigma to Cora, but she accepts and loves him without judgment.
Her companion, Martha, is less of a flighty dilettante and more of a rebel; an active socialist who uses Cora's connections to change the dire conditions in which London's working classes live.
Sarah Perry's novel might be primarily a dark love story laced with Gothic mystery, but it is also a complex portrait of a time of unease and questioning, when the flimsy pillars holding up the rules of faith and class began bit by bit to crumble.
The serpent of the title is both real and allegorical. Strange things have been happening in the bleak hamlet of Aldwinter on the Essex coast. Suspicious drownings and disappearances are blamed on a basilisk-like creature about whose deadly coils and murderous eyes the stories grow ever wilder and more fanciful.
The villagers live in fear, much to the annoyance of their pastor, the Reverend William Ransome, a rational man able to balance his interest in Darwin with the tenets of his vocation. William has bright children and a saintly wife called Stella, but his placid existence is thrown into turmoil by the loathsome pagan snake and the beguiling Cora.
Obsessed with old fossils and new theories, Cora and her entourage blow into Aldwinter and disturb the peace. She seeks the serpent and instead finds William, who is not at all the stuffy parson she had imagined. They hide their growing mutual attraction beneath a veneer of argumentative disdain, but such primal forces cannot be forever submerged; the creature will rise and devour its prey.
block_quotes_start This is no conventional love story. It is not a conventional anything. Perry's writing evokes Hilary Mantel in parts block_quotes_end
This is no conventional love story. It is not a conventional anything. Perry's writing evokes Hilary Mantel in parts. Consider these lines from her opening chapter: "Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past."
Perry is a poet and a scholar who brings her steely glance to bear on the infinite complexities of the human mind in all its varied circumstances, making this a universal story that transcends its historical setting. And artist Peter Dyer's exquisite jacket design makes this one book you really can judge by its cover.
• Our reviewer gave Sarah Perry's 'The Essex Serpent' (Serpent's Tail , R350) a rating of 5/5 stars.