Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

the essex serpent

Writing Historical Fiction with a Victorian setting in the 21st century is a battle with cliches. Will it be a comedy of manners, a dive into the seedy underbelly, a safari into the past, where we can point and gape at how they lived ‘back then’. In her Author’s Note to her novel The Essex Serpent, Perry as good as outlines her manifesto for the novel by thanking the authors who for her “opened the door to a Victorian age so like our own I am almost persuaded I remember it”. In The Essex Serpent, Perry has no interest in exoticising the difference of the past. Instead, her characters all embody difference facets of a culture so similar to our own. With the devices of knife attack, housing reform and that eponymous serpent, Perry sets then spinning into each other’s orbit.

The novel’s heroine is Cora Seaborne, who begins the novel as a new widow gladly freeing herself from her abusive civil servant husband with natural history. News reaches London of a serpent returned to the Essex marshes and frightening the villagers. To Cora the serpent is an ichthyosaur and heads to Essex the idea of catching it and having her name on its exhibit in the British Museum. But to the vicar of the serpent-worried village of Aldwinter it is a nuisance superstition, and to his wife Stella it becomes a cause of her tuberculosis-induced euphoria or spes phthisica. The book is about preconceived notions as much as it is about a serpent. Each character has their own idea of the serpent, and Perry uses it as a deus ex machina to bring together her varied characters from the consumptive and the autistic boy to the reverend and the lady naturalist. The novel is no creature feature, though the (double) reveal of the identity serpent is dealt with masterfully and suspensefully, it is largely to fill plot holes than to delight in strange beasts.

The novel ranges around the varied landscape of the Victorian world with intellectual honesty, Perry resists sneering or caving to cultural relativism. It is a novel that couldn’t have been written at any other time than the present, as the 21st century narrative voice, language and dialogue peppered with first names reminds the reader. In Perry’s novel, rebels aren’t crushed under the weight of social convention as they might in a Victorian novel; Cora is a very modern liberated woman; as a wealthy widow can wear men’s clothes or ballgowns when she sees fit without consequence. Cora is everything Tess of Tess of the D’Urbevilles isn’t, the last line of the novel shows her having it all, “I love and I am content without you”. Some of the other female characters, such as Cora’s socialist maid Martha and the rector’s daughter, a budding intellectual are on the way to shedding the chains of femininity and are successful. Even the madwoman of the novel, Stella, does not have her illness madness induced by a cruel husband and an oppressive society, a la “The Yellow Wallpaper”, but rather by simple organic disease. The modernity of the female characters means that Perry mostly sidesteps tackling what gender means and how it limits her characters within their society.

Similarly, there I feel that there is something lacking in the depiction of science in the novel. The reviews I read of the book gave the impression that it would be a novel about a female Victorian palaeontologist. But whilst palaeontology gets Cora to Aldwinter and science draws together her and Rev. William Ransome, a man betwixt science and faith throughout the novel, it extends little beyond a plot device. Cora’s scientific awakening isn’t told with the awe and wonder found in autobiographies of science, instead Cora spends her time collecting shells, not in reverential awe at nature or concocting her own theories, and science is dropped as one of Cora’s fad towards the end of the novel. The passages on her long walks through Essex are much more engaging and emotionally evocative piece of nature writing, but the flatness of her scientific interest does a disservice to novel’s theme of the Victorian clash of science and faith.

More engaging were the unexpected sub-plots of the novel. Perry adds in the an interesting subplot about the history of surgery, manifest in the figure of the surgeon Dr Luke Garrett, “friendzoned” by Cora. He is a phenomenally skilled surgeon and sews up the pericardium of a man stabbed in the heart who would otherwise be left for dead. But this feat brings greater problems for Luke and he is brought to earth by rejection and one of the worst injuries a surgeon could sustain. The mysteries and miracles of Victorian surgery are conveyed well, and earn the book its place on the Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Additionally, I loved the way autism was treated in the novel. Of course the word is never mentioned, but Cora’s son Francis has all the hallmarks of an Asperger’s-like condition; the emotional distance, the obsession with collecting “treasures” and so on. Francis is treated with understanding by the characters and has a shadowy existence throughout much of the novel. Late in the novel he develops a friendship with the reverend’s wife, Stella, who is similarly driven to collect blue “treasures” in her spes phthisica, and find some solace in each other. This is part of Perry’s broader genius with this work; in her plotting she guides the needles to knit the disparate strings of her characters together in friendship; romantic, platonic and everything else these labels don’t cover. The novel’s structure is perfectly rounded and more importantly deeply humane, conveying a deep and unsentimental belief in the goodness and kindness of humanity.

For more on The Essex Serpent, see the publisher’s website, and the website of the Wellcome Book Prize.


Novel Review: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss


The trope of the ordinary family facing a medical emergency which tries their relationships is the bones of a thousand TV soaps. Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone opens with such a medical emergence, a teenager’s unexpected anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest. It is an incident which would occupy five minutes’ attention on a hospital soap. Moss, however, eschews sensationalism. Instead she takes the incidence and its consequences and stretches out onto a broad, rich canvas, tracing the ripples it sends out through time and memory. She pulls the reader through the narrative with the hooks of so called “sick lit”, but avoids high-octane drama and a simplistic resolution. We are instead given an exquisite exploration of parental anxiety, dependence and human frailty.

The novel is written from the perspective of Adam Goldschmidt, a ‘househusband’ sporadically employed as a lecturer, whose daughter Miriam suddenly and inexplicable goes into cardiac arrest in a field at school. Adam’s voice is well realised, he is astute yet uncynical. For example, when he yearns for normality Moss captures both Adam’s extreme distress and self-awareness well, in “May we live long enough to despise the cliches again, may we heal enough to take for granted the sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.”Adam knows how his crisis pales in comparison to the endless global massacres that flicker by on the news. Crisis and emotional turmoil are written without sentimentality, but it is not dispassionate.We share in Adam’s anxiety which drives him to his children’s rooms at night to check they are still breathing, the novel is tense with foreboding and dread which Moss thankfully doesn’t give into releasing in a sensationalist conclusion.

Adam is the archetype of the good modern father. Gender politics savvy, devoted to his children and overworked GP wife but knows not to crow about it. A man in a woman’s world, he washes his daughter’s underwear yet gets suspected of paedophilia for taking his daughter to a swimming pool. He’s at the cross hairs of a culture war. He enjoys the routines of family life and is ambivalent about the academic world he drifts through, playing with toy knights in a meeting. Without over-egging the point (as Adam would no doubt insist upon) it is refreshing to see a father embrace without regret the domestic life, and it not be the focus of the novel, it would work just as well if Adam and his wife Emma swapped roles.

An interesting aspect of this novel is the relationship between Miriam and Adam. Miriam is a moderately rebellious whip-sharp fifteen year old. She’s at a stage where she can sign herself up to a political party but needs to be reminded to wear her coat. She fucked the patriarchy and got the T-shirt, but her parents won’t let her wear the shirt in public. She is not the tragic elfin heroine of much YA sick lit. Adam is a moderating influence on her rather than a disciplinarian, and respects her independence and unique vivacity. His is not a smothering love but an awestruck love. He seems to ask himself, “how have I made that?” The parent’s manner of seeing their own children as miracles brings into focus the miraculous nature of a human life even beginning and continue to be, but no amount of love can stop a body from failing.

Scattered through the narrative of Miriam’s anaphylaxis is exerts from Adam’s history of the rebuild of Coventry Cathedral after it’s destruction in the Blitz. The theme of recovery and moving past trauma, medical and architectural, is obvious, and shows well how an academic’s subject colours their personal life. Less successful are Adam’s grandfather’s tales of his Holocaust-survivor parents and his time in communes, which add little to a novel already rich in meaning.

But the novel’s structure is wonderful. It’s tight, neat focus on the days between Miriam’s cardiac arrest to a holiday six months later stops it from bloating indulgently. The chapters are slices of no more than ten pages which make the narrative as episodic as life and memory and allowing the other narrative threads to slot between the main events.

Aside from what the blurb would tell you there is no real plot to The Tidal Zone If it was accidentally shelved next to the misery memoirs and sick lit, there would be a lot of disappointed customers, to give no spoilers. But Moss’ more impressionistic literary approach captures what crisis and trauma is really like. Those events that feel like a punch but lingers like a bruise, changing the skin but not developing.

In The Tidal Zone, Moss shows how crisis crystallizes what would otherwise slip you by, and acts as a catalyst for seeing the past and the future differently.