You can, of course, judge a book by its cover. Look at this one, for instance: The Essex Serpent is simply beautiful, a gorgeous artifact, put together with pride, skill and imagination. Similar care has been taken by Sarah Perry on the story itself. It is not, however, the story that was advertised (well, advertised in my head anyway…I’m not implying there’s a trade descriptions issue). In a font which suggests the headline of a Victorian penny dreadful, we have the headline:
STRANGE NEWS OUT OF ESSEX
Metropolitan Cora Seaborne is intrigued. Her London contains the new Underground trains, advances in medicine and the theories of Darwin (and, slum housing which provides a key sub-plot). But far from modernity, out in the Essex marshes, it is possible to believe in an ancient serpent, somewhere below the depths of the dark creeks, rising to devour people. She goes to find out more: Cora knows all about the doings of Mary Anning at Lyme Regis and believes she too could discover a prehistoric creature, but this time alive and swimming.
Country vicar Will is frustrated by the irrationality he finds everywhere – and especially by the serpent carving in his church which feeds the villagers’ excitement and stimulates their visions of the creature – but symbols abound. There is a tree called Traitor’s Oak. A wrecked boat in the estuary – a local landmark – is the Leviathan.
Science, religion and superstition collide. There is an extraordinary, cinematic scene straight out of Polanski when a hysterical, collective laughter seizes the girls in a classroom. The feeling bypasses just one girl, ‘moving around her like a flow of water interrupted by a rock’. Perry has the great gift of making the ordinary shine. In the narrow streets of Bethnal Green, there are ‘lines of laundry running between, the pennants of a coming army’.
She has an eye for earthly wonders, too: cloud formations and the unusual refraction of the sun’s rays create a Fata Morgana, a heavenly illusion of ships floating in the sky. It’s a beautiful passage, one of many. The monster stays in the background. It’s a less predictable book than one imagines, and less satisfying as a result.