“The Essex Serpent ” by Sarah Perry

“Skippers marked the time and tide, and set their oxblood sails against the north-east wind; a freight of iron was bound for Whitechapel foundry, where bells tolled fifty against the anvil as if time were running out. Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. …Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye, and in the offices of Holborn Bars the long-toothed cog of a master clock caused an electric charge to set its dozen slave clocks chiming. All the clerks looked up from their ledgers, sighed, and looked down once more. On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes. In Wesley’s chapel they sang The sands of time are sinking and wished they might sink faster, and yards away the ice was melting on the graves in Bunhill Fields. In Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple lawyers eyed their calendars and saw statutes of limitation expire; in rooms in Camden and Woolwich time was cruel to lovers wondering how it got so late so soon, and in due course was kind to their ordinary wounds. Across the city in terraces and tenements, in high society and low company and in the middle classes, time was spent and squandered, eked out and wished away; and all the time it rained an icy rain.” 

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“The Essex Serpent” twists and turns with details breathtakingly intricate, with moments which burst and contrast like the colors on its cover.

Sarah Perry writes the story of Cora Seaborne, a young-ish woman widowed in 1893 London, freeing her from a torturous marriage to a vile man.

“The past few weeks had not always been so happy. At times she remembered her grief, and for long stretches in which it was necessary to teach herself again how to draw breath she would feel a cavity open behind her ribs. It was a kind of draining sensation, as if a vital organ had been shared with the man who’d died and was atrophying slowly from misuse. In those cold minutes she would recall not the years of unease, in which she’d never once successfully judged his mood or circumnavigated the methods of his wounding, but their first few months, which were the last of her youth.” 

Cora is delightfully odd, endearingly enigmatic. Her inquisitive nature and her strong individualism draw in her wake a small but devoted group – Martha, her one-time nanny and steadfast friend; Francis, her seemingly autistic son; Luke Garrett, an impish suitor and brilliant but flawed surgeon; and William Ransome, a country vicar. After her husband’s death, Cora flees, with Martha and Francis in tow, to Essex in search of quietude and nature. Dreaming of following in Mary Anning’s paleontologic footprints, Cora first scours the seaside for fossils and signs of life far beyond her experience. Shortly after her arrival in Essex, however, she hears tell of the Essex Serpent, a legendary beast feared by many locals and believed to be a Jurassic-era creature still haunting the sea. Cora is hooked.

Cora’s devotee Martha is a firebrand, a woman who comes from little in a time and place where poverty and womanhood often mean voicelessness.

“When Martha walked from Limehouse to Covent Garden she saw not high windows and Doric columns, but the labourers toiling behind them. It seemed to her that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.”

Martha brilliantly uses the connections she makes through her employer and best friend to chip away at society’s ills, eventually winning over a wealthy Londoner, whose eyes open to societal ills that persist today.

“He discovers Parliament’s habit of making policies benevolently enough, then covering its eyes and shaking hands with industry. Sometimes the greed and malice of what he sees appalls him so much he thinks he must’ve misunderstood; he looks again, and it’s worse than he thought. The local authorities tear down slums, and compensate landlords according to lost rents. Since nothing makes a tenement more profitable than vice and overcrowding, landlords facilitate both as diligently as any pimp on the street, and government rewards them handsomely.”

Sarah Perry masters historical fiction. She writes a novel set 125 years ago that is alive and resonant today. What follows is a tale beautifully knotted like a centuries-old tree. Perry’s twists and turns manage to carry a multiplicity of timeless themes. Her story is about being true to one’s self, about the essential drive to find one’s place in this world. It is also about the power of myth, the enduring nature of love, and the eternal battle between the haves and the have-nots.

 

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