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A beast in the backwoods?    

25 November 2016

Faith and science are on a quest here, says Simon Joseph Jones

The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry
Serpent’s Tail £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50



SARAH PERRY’s excellent first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was a considered evocation of both intimacy and the lack of it — a sensibility that perhaps developed out of her Strict and Particular Baptist upbringing.

”You’re constantly attended by a number of feelings,” she says of that time. “First, of sin, and of the hopelessness of your condition as a human. Second, the fact that re­­­demp­­tion is merely a prayer away. So simultaneously you are a sinner — ‘The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked’ — but on the other hand: ‘Seek and you shall find.’ You’re constantly treading this line.”

This second book, The Essex Serpent, begins in a Victorian London thrilled by the new sciences. But eerie Gothic Essex is possessed by some­thing older: the legends of a dan­gerous beast that may have taken the life of a young lad. The local priest is convinced that people need God to conquer the mind’s devils, and his metaphysical tussle with the modern, independent Cora forms the novel’s spiritual core.

There are “no fewer miracles”, she tells him, “in the microscope than in the gospels”; but it is her unconven­tional, liberated manner that affects him more.

There is much more here, in fact, than a predictable squabble between faith and reason. Cora is an inspired creation: a part-contemporary character taking stage in a moody historical novel; and her supporting cast — a sensitive son, a socialist maid, an attendant admirer — are each much more than ciphers.

Perry is generous to each of them, even — or perhaps especially — their more difficult humanities.
Her sinuous prose never overtakes the story, and what lands most heavily with the reader is the book’s darken­ing atmosphere, suggestive and mysterious, laden with menace, but with dark promise, too.

Surprisingly overlooked by prize juries, this is, in any case, a novel that should outlive the year of its publica­tion. Its meat is dark, on occasion, but rich and filling. Its author was once a missionary, and its tale is a ripe field.


Simon Joseph Jones is the publications manager for Quakers in Britain. He is a former editor of Third Way magazine.

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