The Essex Serpent is the malevolent presence breathing through Sarah Perry’s astonishing new novel, lurking below the surface of the Blackwater estuary and haunting the residents of the small country town of Colchester.
It’s 1893, and Britain has gone mad for the sciences. But in Colchester, with animals and boats going missing and a drowned man washing up on shore, studies of the natural and physical world offer no satisfactory explanation. So the mythical Essex Serpent — a sea snake with wings and fangs that Colchester residents are certain is preying on them — becomes a repository for all the uncanny fears and repressed urges that science and rationality are supposed to have banished.
One character skins moles and hangs them around his property to scare off the serpent. Citizens slip notes to the town rector, urging him to preach repentance so that Colchester can be forgiven its sins and freed from the serpent. In one particularly horrifying scene, children talking about the serpent begin to laugh and cannot stop, snapping their necks back and forth in involuntary spasms as they go into hysterics.
It’s into this atmosphere that Cora, Perry’s radiantly likable main character, makes her entrance. Cora married young, to a monstrous husband (“What a thing it would be: to have me break you, and mend your wounds with gold,” he tells her in a flashback, before setting out to break her), and after her husband’s death by throat cancer, she is a widow. She revels in her newfound freedom: dressing in mannish lumpy tweeds and boots, roaming the countryside for hours on end, and devoting herself to scientific study.
Cora loves science for its own sake — most of Perry’s characters are inveterate knowledge seekers, which is what makes them so compelling — but she also longs for fame and recognition. She wants to see her name engraved on the wall of the British Museum. When she hears of the Essex Serpent, she sets off at once for Colchester on the hope that she might discover an ichthyosaur, a living fossil: The serpent, she reasons, might well be a prehistoric fish that somehow managed to survive and is resurfacing in Essex.
But once she arrives, her attentions are diverted away from the serpent and toward Will, Colchester’s beleaguered rector. Will is a man of the Enlightenment who sees no reason that science and faith may not go hand in hand, and he considers the townspeople’s belief in the serpent to be a dangerous superstition. “Our God is a God of reason and order, not of visitations in the night!” he says.
Will loves ideas almost as much as Cora does, so when they meet, their minds meet and clash and fall in love all at once. But their relationship, too, becomes food for the serpent: Will is married to a wife whom he loves, and he understands his love for Cora to be a sin. As such, he fears it is both caused by the serpent, which surely drove him to sin, and the cause of the serpent, which surely arrived to punish him for his sins. “He wonders,” Perry writes, “if the Essex Serpent has his name written down in a ledger.”
Lust, like the fear of an unknowable natural landscape and all other irrational urges, is a taboo. The only way for Will to deal with it is to displace it onto the Essex Serpent.
Perry’s prose is rich, textured, and intricate. You may recognize a bit of A.S. Byatt in the way Perry leaps into her characters’ philosophical debates, but she is at her lushest and most original when she can describe the natural world — not lyrically, but in a gothic mode, all rotting and fecund vegetation and marshy ground. Perry’s landscape is almost painfully alive, and that makes it redemptive: Her characters are only able to be completely honest with each other when they are outdoors.
The Essex Serpent is a phenomenon in the UK, where it won the British Book Award and has sold more than 200,000 copies. Its reception in the US has been slightly quieter, but it deserves all the praise it’s won across the pond. It’s a thoughtful and elegant book about the human need for knowledge and love, and about the fears and desires we bury.