Sarah Perry's 2015 novel After Me Comes the Flood was a hugely impressive debut: taut, claustrophobic and original. The story of a man who embarks on a journey to live with strangers, it was expertly told. Its sense of mystery and strangeness was magnified by a tone that was both consistent and confident. Tone can be a tricky thing to get right, to create and sustain a convincing atmosphere. It's a necessary kind of scaffolding, but character and story must be able to stand up by themselves.
This ability, and Perry's distinctive grasp of language are in evidence once more in The Essex Serpent. Due to its 1890s setting, it may be reductively labelled as historical fiction – and Perry fully inhabits many of the concerns and stylistic elements of the 19th century novel – but its interests are still contemporary ones: desire, fulfilment and questioning the world.
Perry introduces us to Cora Seaborne, a woman who has borne marriage like a hod of bricks. As her late, abusive husband lay dying, he was attended by a doctor called Luke Garrett, who sets his eyes on the imminent widow. Cora – curious, independent, interested in nature – decamps to coastal Aldwinter in Essex.
Accompanied by her withdrawn son (who is possibly on the spectrum), and Martha, her maid, she meets Will Ransome, the local vicar and his tubercular wife Stella. All three are charmed by each other, and Cora’s fears of parochialism and lack of inquiry are banished. There are walks and meetings, conversation and debate, and soon Cora and William’s regard for each other becomes more than platonic, causing anguish for both.
Dr Garrett is not about to give up on his chance of Cora, or of marriage: “Luke diagnosed himself to be in love, and sought no cure for the disease”, which complicates the story further. There are criss-crossing correspondences in the novel, and while the epistolary form isn’t always successful, here it feels both authentic and revelatory.
The book’s title refers to a mythical creature that once roamed the marshes and rivers of Essex, and has recently reappeared, causing fear and suspicion among the locals. Cora has convinced herself that it is a fossil, but the townsfolk believe it has returned as retribution.
The 19th century may have been the century of medicine and scientific progression, but superstition and religion still dominate the discourse. Cora is a rationalist, while William is a man of God, but Perry is too deft a storyteller to reduce the narrative to a Science versus Religion rumble. This is novel of ideas, and flexes its muscles in addressing multiple concerns of the period: slum living, medical breakthroughs amid poor hygiene, societal expectations according to class, means and gender. Martha, the sharp-tongued maid campaigns for housing on behalf of the poor, and is an avowed liberal in favour of women’s rights.
There’s something else at work though: while these various strands play out across the pages, the sense of menace grows. Children disappear, a man washes up with his head twisted 180 degrees, and the spectre of the mysterious serpent infuses each chapter with atmospheric gloom.
While I raced through pages wanting to know if the creature existed (I can’t tell you) and what it looked like (ditto), the titular serpent is more of a diversion from the dual central story: the burgeoning regard and passion that develops between Cora and William, and Cora’s own awakening. Autonomy for women was a rarity in Victorian times, especially for the non-affluent. But Cora is neither a wife nor widow trope: she demands an intellectual vigour in others that she espouses herself. Nor is she a wan, hanky-dabbing naïf: “I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful. And I was never more happy.”
The novel probes at both private emotion and public concerns, and is engrossing and immersive. The grime of London is only surpassed by the murk of Aldwinter. Cora makes for an indelible heroine: uncompromising, funny and smart, and not unlike Alma Whittaker (who wants to be a botanist in 19th century America) in Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.
There will also be whispers of Dickens or a gamut of 19th century novels of similar size and scale, but Perry's voice and story are her own. Her language is exquisite, her characterisation finely tuned. Based on The Essex Serpent and its predecessor, it's clear that Perry is a gifted writer of immense ability.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1