Anthony Cummins

Strange sightings in Essex

An uplifting work of historical fiction

Strange sightings in Essex
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The Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, pp. 442, £

I suspect some readers might be too cool for this lovely book, partly because, despite its gothic horror set-up, it sets out unashamedly to lift the spirits; and partly because historical novels are sometimes derided as escapist, as if they’re only a fallback for authors who can’t keep up with, say, immigration or the internet.

It takes place over a single year in the 1890s, in an Essex village where — if the rumours are to be believed — a monstrous sea creature skulks in the estuary, blamed for horrors from disembowelled livestock to a man’s corpse washing up on the marsh, his neck snapped.

Up from London amid this panic is Cora, a wealthy amateur naturalist, liberated by the death of her abusive husband. When friends introduce her to the local vicar, Ransome, their jousts over God and geology turn to will-they-won’t-they ardour, observed by his wife (whose dodgy-sounding cough escapes attention) and Garrett, a maverick surgeon who took a shine to Cora while treating her dying husband.

These relationships fuel the novel, together with the question of what the villagers actually see. The writing has a gorgeous lilt, and for a novel with a built-in anticlimax (unless you’re a Nessie truther), it sustains tension remarkably well. The research that can swamp this kind of enterprise is put in the service of excitement: witness the jeopardy rung from a snip-by-snip description of Garrett pioneering a heart procedure on a knifed clerk.

A plus-ça-change frisson comes from references to war in Afghanistan and a housing crisis in London. The latter most concerns Cora’s Marxist maid, Martha, who shames a rich suitor into activism when he admits that until recently he didn’t even know how many rooms there were in his house. The novel takes Martha seriously but doesn’t forbid teasing: she views the Essex natives as ‘halfwits’, ‘her astonishment that coffee could be had in such a backwater had been matched only by her disgust at the astringent liquid she’d been served’.

As befits a tale of strange sightings, the novel’s cast teach each other to question first impressions and revise long-held beliefs — a low-voltage source of drama with surprising emotional charge. The method is itself Victorian — an omniscient narrator scattering sackfuls of sympathy — but the message never gets old: the world is poorer if we don’t put ourselves in each other’s place once in a while.