Strange News Out of Essex
John Burnside’s review of Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, sums up what makes her writing stand out. ‘Haunting’ and ‘unique’ are words that crop up again and again in descriptions of Perry’s work, with good reason. Her writing has an otherworldly quality, never completely settled in a defined period but entirely comfortable in its skin.
Sarah Perry herself is certainly at home with a life both of its time and out of it. Her own upbringing was far from ordinary, as the daughter of religious parents – attending of one of the last strict Baptist chapels in Essex – her early life was unusually removed from contemporary influences and her reading shaped by Nineteenth-Century classics and The King James Bible. Perry credits this for helping to shape her writing:
'At times I feel appallingly out of kilter with the rest of the world, and at other times I feel quite at ease and am a little startled when asked about it.' For Books’ Sake
Nowhere is this strange blend of historical and modern aesthetic better realised than in her latest book, The Essex Serpent, a novel described aptly by Alex Preston as 'a historical novel with an entirely modern consciousness' FT. Set in 1893 and firmly rooted in the author’s home county of Essex, the novel centres on the character of Cora Seaborne, a widow freed from a controlling, unhappy marriage. A keen amateur naturalist, she escapes her mourning and the gossip of well-wishers, retreating to the Essex countryside with her son. There she hears the rumours surrounding the so-called ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore being blamed for a spate of deaths and disturbances and the cause of escalating panic in the local community. Her ensuing investigations bring her into contact with a clergyman, William Ransome, and his family – an apparent idyllic example of domestic harmony. Yet William is as convinced of finding the answer to local hysteria in faith, as Cora is on finding it in science. Their differing opinions bring them closer to one another even as they are in near constant opposition. As their lives become ever-more enmeshed they find themselves bound to each other in ways neither one could anticipate.
This is a book at home with strangeness, a novel that captures a world in flux, caught inexorably between the advances of medical and scientific development and the influence of religion, custom and folklore. There are lovely nods here to the Victorian novel and ample evidence of the author’s background in Gothic tradition (Perry received her PHD in Creative Writing and The Gothic in 2012). Just as the fog of a London Peculiar is almost a character in Bleak House so the Essex flats are intrinsic to the fabric of Perry’s fiction. Whether real or imagined there is no shaking the pull of fear on the edge of things, Perry’s 'darkness on the face of the deep' The Essex Serpent. She creates an unnerving feeling of dread, of creeping fear and trembling inevitability, uncovering what is truly uncanny – not the fear of the unknown but the lurking danger in those closest to us and in ourselves.