Standing at the shoreline on a calm, moonless night, you can hear a low-pitched roar. Some say it’s just the waves; others claim it’s a winged monster swimming through the watery depths. But it’s actually the sound of thousands of fans cheering for “The Essex Serpent,” an irresistible new novel by Sarah Perry.
Last month, “The Essex Serpent” won the British Book Award, and it’s already sold more than 250,000 copies, which should convince any skeptic that this slippery beast is real.
There have been sightings for months in America: tantalizing tweets, shots of its gorgeous cover on Instagram, breathless reports from tourists vacationing in London. But now the novel has finally washed up on our shores.
Admittedly, the Loch Ness Monster has better PR, but the Flying Serpent of Essex has been terrifying residents since it was first reported in 1669. Perry sets her story near that spot in a fictional village called Aldwinter more than 200 years later. In the enlightened 1890s, the creatures of mythology have been banished by the discoveries of paleontology, but — as we’re still hearing today — the science remains unsettled.
That tension between science and belief persists throughout “The Essex Serpent,” which is both charmingly Victorian and subtly modern. As the story opens, the good people of Aldwinter are wondering whether an earthquake has unloosed their old monster from the estuary depths. How else to explain the body of a man found on the saltings with his neck broken? Yes, it’s possible he was drunk and tripped, but maybe he was attacked by the old scaly beast. Who’s to say? Real or imagined, the serpent slithers through the public imagination, coiling around each resident’s private guilt.
Into this conflicted village, Perry brings Cora Seaborne, the most delightful heroine I’ve encountered since Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice.” Newly widowed, Cora is finally released from her abusive husband in London and free to spend his fortune however she pleases. She worries only that she might “betray her shameful happiness.”
“I laugh when I shouldn’t,” she admits. “I know I don’t give what’s expected of me . . . these last few weeks I’ve thought over and over that there was never a greater difference between what I ought to be, and what I am.” Hearing of the recent fossil discoveries in Essex, she decides to follow in the footsteps of the paleontologist Mary Anning and see whether she can’t find some petrified bones of her own. Or perhaps there’s something even more vital swimming around Aldwinter. After all, as Cora tells a friend, “Charles Lyell was firmly of the opinion that an ichthyosaur might turn up.”
What definitely turns up is an absorbing story told in a style that’s antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious. The narrative sometimes shifts into an interchange of intimate letters, a bittersweet reminder of what we gave up to send each other emoji and self-destructing snapshots. Raised on the classics and the Bible, Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us.
If “The Essex Serpent” never unearths an actual dinosaur, it more than compensates by excavating the character of its extraordinary heroine, a woman determined not to let anyone repress her again. Arriving in Aldwinter, Cora meets the town’s handsome minister, the Rev. William Ransome, and the two of them immediately begin sparring over the evidence of things not seen. In Perry’s hands, flirting is raised to elegant perfection, a clash of intellects electrified by desire. “Each considers the other to have a fatal flaw in their philosophy which ought by rights to exclude a friendship,” she writes, “and are a little baffled to discover it does nothing of the kind.” The Rev. Ransome decries the widow’s faith in materiality; Cora mocks the minster’s blindness to anything new. He’s happily married with three children, but it’s clear he adores this provocative, witty woman.
Indeed, everybody in the novel adores Cora — I adore her — and who can blame us? “Her presence,” the reverend confesses to himself, “is impossible to ignore, however hard one tried.” Cultured but dismissive of all pretense, beautiful but entirely unconcerned about her appearance, Cora tromps around the shore looking for bones while a parade of admirers pine for her.
Those characters caught in Cora’s gravitational field allow Perry to explore a variety of political and social issues we’re still wrestling with today. Cora’s only child is autistic, though no such diagnosis exists to keep Cora from feeling she simply isn’t a sufficiently loving mother. Her most persistent suitor is a surgeon pushing aggressively against the limits and inhibitions of medical science. His best friend hopes to alleviate the housing crisis in London, where the government, like our new administration, is determined to make sure that any assistance comes with a bitter dollop of humiliation. And Cora’s female companion is a socialist trying to move uncompromised between the worlds of the rich and poor. They all circulate through the stratified society that Perry re-creates — from elegant drawing rooms to dark back alleys, from a London hospital to a country church.
By the end, “The Essex Serpent” identifies a mystery far greater than some creature “from the illuminated margins of a manuscript”: friendship. That’s a phenomenon we discount in romantic comedies and too often take for granted in real life. But in the fertile environment of this novel, Cora is determined to identify a species of devotion between men and women that doesn’t involve subjugation. She may be digging in the past, but she’s clearly looking to the future.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Sarah Perry
Custom House. 416 pp. $26.99