I’ve been very much looking forward to the U.S. release of this novel by Sarah Perry. It has a Victorian lady naturalist, a minister, and a mysterious sea monster. What could be better? And the reviews from the U.K. have been overwhelmingly positive.
Alas, I was disappointed. My first mistake is the one I often make when reading Victorian-era historical fiction. I want it to be like Sarah Waters. I know it’s not fair, but I’ve read all her books and I want there to be more. But knowing it’s not fair, I can be pretty quick to adjust my expectations. Something that feels like another Michael Cox novel would be just fine, better than fine. Or, if I consider similarly premised books from other times and places, there’s Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder. Or Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.
The Essex Serpent is like none of these books. It’s an original. That may speak well of Perry’s talent as a writer, but it didn’t do much for me as a reader.
The first problem I found is that it takes a ridiculously long time to get started. Well over 100 pages. There are lots of characters beyond Cora Seaborne, the recently widowed fossil collector, and William Ransome, the country vicar with a big family and devoted wife, Stella. There’s a pair of doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer. And then there’s Charles and Katherine Ambrose, a good-hearted couple who bring the characters together. And then there are various children, most notably Cora’s son Francis, who appears to be autistic, and the Ransomes’ clever daughter, Joanna. And Cora has a companion, Martha, who appears to be in love with her.
After Cora’s abusive husband dies, the first hundred pages of the book are mostly the various characters making introductions and eventually meeting. In every case, the characters form ideas of who they will meet, and they are invariably surprised. The main meeting is that of Cora and the Ransomes. Cora has come to Essex to look for fossils when she hears the story of some sort of sea creature that has been terrorizing the region. Excited by the idea of finding a new species or one believed to be extinct, she decides to learn more. William, however, is tired of the stories about the creature, believing them to be relics of old superstitions, not appropriate for Christians.
What the book does not show is Cora actually doing much investigating. Instead, it focuses on atmosphere, most notably the hothouse environment of a small community where everything seems uncertain and no one knows what to do about it. Feelings are bubbling over, bringing unwanted sexual attraction or sudden uncontrollable laughter. It reminded me a bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Perhaps if I’d had that book in mind when I started reading, I would have been more patient with the slow (agonizingly slow) burn. As it is, I felt like most of the interesting material (like Luke Garrett’s medical work) was barely touched on when a plot that appears to go nowhere gets all the attention.
The book does get better as it goes on. Passions can’t be denied, and there are consequences to face. The mystery of the serpent is revealed. By the last third, I was keen to see how it would turn out. But that didn’t quite make up for hundreds of pages of waiting for something to happen.