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Review: 'Essex Serpent' a fascinating modern twist on the Victorian novel

Published Jul. 3, 2017

Just when a woman lays one serpent in his grave, another one turns up.

As Sarah Perry's enchanting novel The Essex Serpent opens, protagonist Cora Seaborne is newly widowed but hardly in mourning. Her late husband, Michael, whom she married when she was 17 and he much older, had provided her with an upper-class life in Victorian-era London — but at a cost.

"The neckline of her dress was a little lower than she'd have liked, and showed on her collarbone an ornate scar as long as her thumb, and about as wide. It was the perfect replica of the silver leaves on the silver candlesticks that flanked the silver mirror, and which her husband had pressed into her flesh as though he were sinking his signet ring into a pool of wax. She considered painting it over, but had grown fond of it, and knew that in some circles she was enviously believed to have had a tattoo."

That icily beautiful passage, with all its layers of meaning, gives you some sense of how gorgeous and intelligent Perry's writing is — and, coming early in the book, offers a first glimpse of Cora's complex character.

With Michael safely buried, Cora decamps from London to the coast of Essex, a rural county to the north. With her goes her only son, 11-year-old Francis, a withdrawn child who obsessively collects objects and adheres to intricate routines. The term "autism" was not yet in use, but today Francis would certainly be diagnosed on the spectrum. They're accompanied by a bright young woman named Martha, who serves as nanny and lady's companion, although she's far more devoted to Cora than the average employee.

Just as devoted to Cora is the doctor who tended the dying Michael. Luke Garrett is a brilliant surgeon with no social graces, too gripped by his fascination with science and innovation to have much regard for most people. He's as bold as he is talented, undertaking the surgical repair of a stab wound to a man's heart that other doctors say is impossible — and succeeding. (It's a good deed that will definitely not go unpunished.)

Garrett's temperament, dark looks and short stature have earned him the nickname "the Imp," but Cora admires his honesty and passion. (Garrett is the second fictional character I've run across recently whose description and personality made me think his author imagined him being played in the movie by Peter Dinklage.) Garrett travels to Essex with his best friend, another doctor named George Spencer, who is "all that Garrett was not: tall, wealthy, fair, shy, with feelings deeper that his thoughts were swift."

In Essex, Cora finds herself a little (but not much) embarrassed by how free she feels. She throws herself into her own passion for science, walking for miles through the countryside and collecting fossils, inspired by the works of Charles Darwin, paleontologist Mary Anning and others who lit up the intellectual life of the Victorians.

There are set pieces reminiscent of Charles Dickens and nods to Arthur Conan Doyle and other Victorian writers in The Essex Serpent, but Cora's literary foremother is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She shares Jane's fierce independence and disdain for the expectation of feminine vanity, tramping through the marshes in men's boots and worn tweed coats with muddy hems, and brushing her hair so rarely it's remarked upon when she does. And when it comes to romance, she'd far rather be alone than settle.

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Like Jane, Cora meets a man who both attracts and challenges her with his intellect. But Will Ransome, the local vicar, does not have a crazy wife locked up in the attic, a la Rochester. He has an ethereally beautiful, irresistibly charming one named Stella right in the parlor. Cora is soon drawn into the cheerful orbit of the Ransomes and their kids, who live in the tiny town of Aldwinter on the estuary of the Blackwater River.

All is not fossil hunting, afternoon tea and spirited arguments about science versus religion, however. On New Year's, a local man was found on the estuary shore, naked, with his neck broken. Strange sights and sounds drift in and out of the area's dense, persistent fogs. A dotty old chap named Cracknell is skinning moles and hanging them on his fence as a protective spell. And the locals are murmuring about the sightings in 1669 of "a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons!" Could it be back? If so, what human sin could call it from the deep? And what to make of Stella's strangely high spirits and obsession with the color blue?

The Essex Serpent was published a year ago in the United Kingdom to rapturous reviews and big sales, and it's no wonder. Perry borrows much of her style and structure from Victorian gothic and romance novels, but infuses it all with a decidedly 21st century sensibility.

Like our own, the Victorian era was a time of enormous social and cultural upheaval as well as rapid technological and scientific change. Perry weaves all of those elements into the lives of her engaging, often surprising characters to tell a story of new science and old magic and the ever-restless human heart.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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