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An Interesting Idea That Doesn’t Quite Come Off
I enjoyed this novel which contains some good writing, but it has shortcomings.
It’s a scholarly work which displays the author’s fascination with and knowledge of antiquarian books. The bibliophile references are interesting and convincing. However, there are a few problems.
The developing relationship between Arthur and Bethany, and his growing awareness of his feelings for her is well done, but the relationship itself is barely credible. Here we have a beautiful (we are told many time she is), intelligent, sassy, tech-savvy, mid 20s, modern American girl who is supposed to fall for a man who is old beyond his 40+ years, a stick-in-the-mud and a fuddy-duddy. I was unable to swallow that, which of course undermines the basis of the whole thing.
I also found Arthur’s atheism hard to take. He loves Barchester Cathedral and attends several services a day there. He knows the liturgy by heart and he’s steeped in the history of the place and feels its numinosity (if there is such a word) to the depths of his being; but he is firm in his lack of belief. Really?
Overall the plot moves OK, but there are long periods when little happens. The flashes back in time help to convey the historical associations, but as none of the historical characters are at all developed they’re rather arid and I was tempted to skip over them.
Finally the ending. I won’t do a spoiler, but a great deal has been lost by going for the option the author took. It would have been more powerful had Arthur’s choice been different, which – given what we have learnt of him – it logically should have been. This seemed to me to be too easy an option.
Rating: 3 stars
Review – The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Cora Seaborne is newly widowed. Freed from what is hinted at as an abusive relationship with her dead husband, she leaves London for the wilds of Essex, accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis. There she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary. She meets the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship which fizzes with repressed sexuality.
The people of Aldwinter are a gullible and superstitious lot, only too ready to believe scary tales of a sea monster and to attribute to this happenings which may have natural causes. Perry is very clever at always leaving a measure of doubt; was it the serpent, or was it something else? With Cora’s arrival, everything ramps up. Cora has become interested in Darwinism and starts collecting fossils. She wants to believe in the serpent and hopes it might be an ichthyosaur left over from prehistoric times. Meanwhile hysteria grips the village. There’s an outbreak of madness at the school and a disastrous attempt to hypnotise the rector’s daughter in an effort to discover what has possessed the children.
In a parallel story Martha works to alleviate the suffering of the poor in London’s east end, and to persuade Cora’s wealthy friends to donate to her worthy causes. At the same time there is the unrequited love Luke, the doctor who attended Cora’s husband, feels for her. These narrative threads build to an intriguing climax.
The book has the feel of a classic and the story unfolds well. The prose is lovely, with lilting cadences that in places reminded me of Under Milk Wood. There are some minor irritations. For example, it takes some time to work out the exact period. Victorian times, yes, but it’s only by piecing together hints that we can see just when. For example, the explosion of Krakatoa is referred to and that was 1883, so it must be after that; the first Housing of the Poor Act was in 1885, and as that too is mentioned the action must be later. Eventually it becomes settled that it’s taking place in the 1890s, but why could we not simply be told? A stylistic niggle is that the author is over enamoured of the colon and semicolon. These can be effective when used properly, but they occur every other sentence, often in places where a comma, full stop or conjunction would be better.
However, there are also great strengths. The contrasts – between wealth and poverty in London, between the bustling city and the pagan backwater of the Essex coast, between the socially conscious Martha and her well-meaning but blinkered backers, between the dedication and passion of the doctor and the blundering and careless Cora – are beautifully drawn. In the rector, Ransome, Perry has managed to portray convincingly a man genuinely in love with two woman at the same time, who takes a lenient view of his own adulterous advances because he dresses them in the formality of his cloth. Hints, shifts, elisions, red herrings, half truths abound, making for a fascinating read.
Sarah Perry has been criticised for not writing ‘proper’ historical fiction and making her characters and their speech too modern. I think this misses the point. In choosing to make her characters ‘modern’ in thought, act and expression Perry is conveying that the 1890s were a very odd period indeed: Britain at the height of its empire, huge social upheavals, an explosion of the arts and sciences and the challenging of orthodoxies that had stood for years are at the heart of the setting. The Essex Serpent is an absorbing read, and the acclaim it has received is well deserved. I strongly recommend it.
Rating: 4 stars