Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was one of the most beloved and acclaimed books of 2016 in the UK, and it has finally reached U.S. shores this week. The story of a woman who finds herself swept up in a village myth is as engrossing as its reputation would suggest, evoking a time when fact and fantasy blended—and when monsters could still be real.
When Cora Seaborne’s husband passes away in 1893, she takes her son Francis and her companion Martha to hunt for fossils in rural Essex. Soon after arriving, she is introduced to William Ransome, a vicar in the village of Aldwinter, and his wife Stella, a fairy-like woman with a knack for gossip and an unshakeable flu. Along with two medical students with whom Cora became acquainted during her husband’s illness—the “impish” Luke Garrett and the wealthy George Spencer—and the well-connected Ambrose family, Cora carves out an eccentric life for herself surrounded by “everyone who’s ever loved [her] and everyone [she’s] ever loved.”
But the Essex Serpent, a winged sea dragon accused of killing sheep and causing inexplicable drownings, supposedly haunts Aldwinter. It’s not the first time the serpent has terrified the town, but as science encroaches on legend, it becomes unclear how to deal with a creature believed to be a sign of God’s judgment. William and Cora, the former a man of faith and the latter a woman of science, are bonded by rumors of the beast. But friction results as William wants to lay the rumors to rest and Cora wants to prove them. Another monster haunts Cora as well: the memory of a cruel husband whose physical and psychological abuse lingers.
Perry brilliantly weaves together multiple characters’ narratives, from the unconventional Cora to the socialist Martha to the darkly curious Luke. They appear to circle one another, drawn together by unlikely circumstances and sharing a sense of camaraderie that is truly charming. But as book’s tension grows and jarring incidents take place with more frequency, the line between reality and mystery blurs. If all it takes is an idea to cause a mental or physical reaction, what does that mean for the nature of truth?
Throughout The Essex Serpent, Perry’s command of language as a tool to evoke time and place proves remarkable. One can feel the Victorian push-and-pull between scientific understanding and long-held pagan fears, as children cast spells and men hang animals for protection. The threat of a prehistoric beast feels real—until a wry joke from Cora or William clips its wings. This, combined with the emotional depth between characters, creates something wholly unique. Intimacy and humor coexist alongside anxiety and fear, forging a narrative that is compelling and chilling by turns.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.