Friday 30 June 2017

The Essex Serpent

(June 2017)

A drily amusing (and on occasion laugh-out-loud funny) historical novel from the author of After Me Comes the Flood. The Essex Serpent has been receiving plaudits left, right, and centre, and it’s certainly very readable (that most ambiguous word of praise); it’s a little over 400 pages and I got through it in a weekend. It’s not, on the surface, a hugely challenging book. Engaging, yes. Thoughtful, certainly. Erudite, even, but you don’t emerge at the end feeling as if you’ve been put through the wringer, emotionally or intellectually. This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing at all.

In amongst all the other things you could like about this book (and which I’ll cordially invite you to Google), what I’m interested in here is how it deals with that oft-considered notion of ‘conflict’. While the people we meet certainly don’t have everything go their own ways, it’s clear that Perry has little time for Vonnegut’s diktat that authors should make awful things happen to their characters. It’s not bad advice in and of itself, but the problem (as so ever) is when it’s applied ineptly or lazily: shitty things happening to luckless people as a transparent device for keeping the plot moving. The conflict here is less to do with the characters’ actions than their emotions, and, more interestingly, the setting and mode of the book itself.

The setting is London and the Essex coast during the 1890s. The mode is surprisingly gothic. The main story concerns Cora Seabourne, a young, recently widowed woman emerging from the death of her abusive husband as a wholehearted devotee of Charles Darwin and Mary Anning. Fleeing the unhappy environs of London, she sets up her household in Colchester and is introduced to the Ransomes. William is a rector, tending to his parish in the coastal village of Aldwinter, and living in the rectory with his three children and wife (who has an ominously stubborn cough that just won’t shift). Cora and William’s unlikely friendship is the core of the book, and this is what gives us the conflict, as they play off each other in volatile but affectionate arguments about the nature of god, science, and progress. In a neat little twist, Perry avoids these two being bald proxies for a simplistic “Rationality vs Belief” debate by introducing the eponymous Serpent, a local legend that the villagers believe has resurrected and cursed them, and while William dismisses it of hand, Cora finds herself not-so-secretly longing to confirm the rumour’s truth.

There is, of course, a certain amount of sexual tension between the two main protagonists (including, memorably, a gentle allusion to Will angrily wanking in a field), but while a consummation of sorts is clearly inevitable, their relationship never comes across as contrived. Consider their introduction, which has all the ingredients of a textbook meet cute: She helps him rescue a sheep from a bog, leaving them both covered in mud and unrecognisable. When they are later more officially introduced, Will recognizes Cora quickly, but rather than string the knowledge imbalance out to create some cheap tension, Perry has Cora click to Will’s almost immediately as well, thus setting the tone for the rest of their relationship as one between relative equals.

I enjoyed this book much, much more than I expected to, given how deliberately odd its precursor was. The only real downside was with one of the subplots, in which another acquaintance of Cora’s sparks a campaign focusing hosing conditions for the working poor in London. A supporting character is an MP (a former colleague of Cora’s late husband), who, despite being a relative charming, clubbable fellow, seriously dallies with social Darwinism: The poor deserve to be poor. They are, in fact, genetically predestined to be poor, and could and should never hope for better. This story strand is fine in and of itself, but reading it in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire inescapably impacted upon the experience, not least the book’s consideration of humanity’s supposed enlightenment and progress. It is not a one-way street at all.

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