The Essex Serpent
nolead begins By Sarah Perry
416 pp. $26.99 nolead ends
Reviewed by Ron Charles
nolead ends Standing at the shoreline on a calm, moonless night, you can hear a low-pitched roar. Some say it's just the waves; others claim it's a winged monster swimming through the depths. But it's actually the sound of thousands of fans cheering for The Essex Serpent, an irresistible new novel by Sarah Perry. Last month, it won the British Book Award, and it's already sold more than 250,000 copies.
The Flying Serpent of Essex has been terrifying residents since it was first reported in 1669. Perry sets her story near that spot in a fictional village called Aldwinter more than 200 years later. As the story opens, the people of Aldwinter are wondering whether an earthquake has loosed their old monster from the estuary depths. How else to explain the body of a man found on the saltings with his neck broken? Real or imagined, the serpent slithers through the public imagination, coiling around each resident's private guilt.
Into this conflicted village, Perry brings Cora Seaborne, the most delightful heroine I've encountered since Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Newly widowed, Cora is finally released from her abusive husband in London and free to spend his fortune however she pleases. She worries only that she might "betray her shameful happiness." Hearing of recent fossil discoveries in Essex, she decides to follow in the footsteps of the paleontologist Mary Anning and see whether she can't find some petrified bones of her own.
What turns up is an absorbing story told in a style that's antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious.
Cora is an extraordinary heroine, a woman determined not to let anyone repress her again. Arriving in Aldwinter, she meets the town's handsome minister, the Rev. William Ransome. In Perry's hands, flirting is raised to elegant perfection, a clash of intellects electrified by desire.
Everybody in the novel adores Cora - I adore her - and who can blame us? Cultured but dismissive of all pretense, beautiful but entirely unconcerned about her appearance, Cora tromps around the shore, looking for bones while a parade of admirers pine for her.
By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature "from the illuminated margins of a manuscript": friendship. In the fertile environment of this novel, Cora is determined to identify a species of devotion between men and women that doesn't involve subjugation. She may be digging in the past, but she's clearly looking to the future.