Tuesday, 16 August 2016
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Francis was nonplussed, and could only stand on the threshold, surveying the room. Never in his years of accumulating treasures had he seen anything like it: he’d thought himself expert in the collector’s art, but knew when he was bested.
Stella Ransome lay on a white couch between two open windows hung with blue curtains. She wore a dark blue dressing gown and blue slippers and was decked with turquoise beads. On her hands were gimcrack rings, and on every windowsill blue glass bottles glinted: there were sherry bottles and poison bottles and little flagons for scent, shards of glass gathered from gutters and opaque nuggets tossed up by the tide. Neatly laid out on tables and chairs were items ordered by depth or pallor of pigment: bottle-tops and buttons, silk scraps and folded sheets of paper, feathers and stones, and all of them blue.
commentary: You know how it is when everyone else discovers an author you thought was yours? I couldn’t be more pleased for Sarah Perry that Essex Serpent is now an OFFICIAL BESTSELLER, but I would just like to point out that we covered After Me Comes The Flood on the blog back in 2014.
You may have heard of this new book, and if so, everything you have heard is true. It’s a wonder, a dream of a book. It tells the story of Cora, newly-widowed, who moves to Essex with her slightly odd son – Francis, above - and her companion in 1893. There is ‘strange news out of Essex’ – reports of a sea-serpent, people disappearing and acting strangely.
The locals live in fear. Cora makes friends with a vicar and his family. As modern scientific methods challenge old beliefs, there is a lot in the book about fossils and dinosaurs, religion and evolution, superstition and knowledge. There is also a fascinating if gruesome strand of medical developments. But it’s a real novel, a good story, these aspects are not shoehorned in to show off her research. The book also has the most tremendous atmosphere and sense of place… the salt air and mists rising off the marsh, the small town, the village and vicarage and the church.
The book it most reminds me of is Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and White, which is a massive compliment.
If I had to define what is so brilliant about the book it is this: Everything in it seems compelling and real and familiar (from books, from life, from history) and yet at the same time it is unexpected, and surprising, and doesn’t go where you think it will.
And, it’s both readable and gives the reader some credit – not everything is spelled out in every detail.
And it has the best cover of any book this year:
Sometimes when I’m finding the pictures for a blog entry I feel I’ve got a great match, I’m really happy with them, and this happened with Sarah Perry’s previous book, After Me Comes The Flood. And Sarah herself was kind enough to say that she liked the photos – so I was on my mettle with this one (and I hope she likes them).
I knew where to go – I very much wanted to show the blueness that surrounds Stella and the young boy Francis, their collections of objects, their strange relationship, the importance of blue in the book. Early photography seemed the place to look. So I started at George Eastman House – an American archive with a wondrous collection of early (and more recent) photographs, which they make available via Flickr Creative Commons.
Woman and child – it was his blue jacket – is from a little later than the book, but seemed right.
Woman in blue hat with feathers and pinecones – could such a hat BE more Essex Serpent?
Woman in blue dress sitting near fireplace
All three from George Eastman House. First two unknown photographers, the third one by Dr L Silberstein.
The bottle is an Untitled Photograph from the Smithsonian, taken by Thomas Smillie, who was a photographer there for 50 years, including the period of the book’s setting: he was a pioneer in the field of museum photography.
Illustration from a late 19th century book on history and geology: ‘the marshes stretched down to the sea, where sea-serpents and many strange reptiles held sway in the waters, while reptilian-like bats and birds flew in the air.’ (this was in what’s now the Western USA, but did sound like Cora’s view of Essex…)