The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

This was a book that the whole group enjoyed, with 4 marks out of 5 being the almost unanimous judgement.
(Quotes from the Guardian)

InSarah Perry’s second novel, 1890s London is mad about the sciences, especially palaeontology. Every six months someone publishes a paper “setting out ways and places extinct animals might live on”, while smart women collect ammonites or wear necklaces of fossil teeth set in silver. New widow Cora Seagrave, accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis, leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex. There, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life; and meets its spiritual adversary, the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship of voluble opposition and unspoken attraction.

The Essex Serpent is fully acted out. Fertile, open, vocal about its own origins and passions, crammed with incident, characters and plot, it is a novel of ideas. Narrative and voice coil together until it is very difficult to stop reading, very difficult to avoid being dragged into Aldwinter’s dark and sometimes darkly comic waters.

Inadvertent emotional damage is the novel’s other major theme. “What use,” Francis the autistic child asks at one point, crawling out from under the table, “to observe the human species and try to understand it? Their rules were fathomless and no more fixed than the wind.”

Perry extends her considerable generosity not just to her characters but to the whole late Victorian period, with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future; at the same time she is asking clearly, how do we do better than that?