- Jamie Drew
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. She has a PhD in creative writing at Royal Holloway which she completed under the supervision of Andrew Motion.
She has been writer in residence at the Gladstone Library and is a winner of the Shiva Naipaul award for travel writing. She has published two novels from Serpent's Tail, After Me Comes The Flood and The Essex Serpent.
Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize, and won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award, in 2014.
The Essex Serpent was The Waterstones Book Of The Year 2016 and shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. She lives in Norwich.
Sarah Perry’s fiction has been compared with the work of Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald. While none of these male authors do justice to the feminist undercurrents of Perry’s work, they certainly speak to the gothic spirit, the elements of fantasy and surrealism, the preoccupation with history and memory, landscape and environment that are her signature themes.
In her haunting debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood, days of drought drive the reclusive John Cole away from his deserted ‘snail’s shell’ of a London bookshop to his brother’s family home on the Norfolk Coast. The streets surrounding the shop are empty, but John is lured less by the prospect of company, than the promise of water: the reviving tang of marsh land and cool breezes.
When he gets lost on the way and his car overheats, things start to go badly wrong for John. Abandoning his car, he eventually comes across a house that strikes him simultaneously as a mirage or hallucination and, with its hard-edged façade, ‘the most real thing I’d ever seen’. The inhabitants of the house are stranger still: they know him by name, even claim they have been waiting for him. From the beginning, it is difficult to tell where John’s troubles start. His story opens after a heavy night’s sleep, ‘the sheets… tight as ropes around my legs’. Are the surreal yet strangely plausible events that follow all inside John’s pain-riddled, feverish head? Or are they outside, within the nightmarish landscape that surrounds him?
Like the journal in which he jots his narrative (unfolding over a week, the book is structured as daily diary entries), the boundaries between public and private are unclear. Sections of the novel segue between first-person and third, psychological interior and omniscient exterior. John’s motives are unclear, perhaps least of all to him: is he staying of his own free will, or is he being held by the familiar strangers surrounding him? Is this a novel of uncanny returns and haunting deja-vu, or an apocalyptic vision of the future? Certainly, the novel is working with the biblical connotations of apocalypse. John’s sense is that he’s strayed from the path. His room hangs with a painted Puritan in a plain oak frame. Elijah and Eve are among his hosts. Whether the deluge promised in the book’s title will bring an end, or a new beginning is skilfully postponed in this understated but highly addictive narrative.
Following the restrained economy of After Me Comes the Flood, The Essex Serpent has something of the baroque beauty and carefully plotted profusion that is exquisitely captured in the book’s William Morris-style cover. Despite being strikingly different works stylistically, both novels share a fundamental preoccupation with reservoirs, rivers and sea. The protagonists of both texts leave London for the lure of water, which as well as the obvious biblical undercurrents, carry a mythical and environmental resonance. Water saturates the gothic tropes of each book, hinting at the submerged, the hidden and what lies beneath.
A labyrinthine plot combines omniscient slabs of narrative, book ended by the subjective impressionism of epistolary fragments. The tale centres on a wealthy widow, Cora, who escapes London and the tyranny of her former marriage for Colchester. Cora, who is accompanied by Martha her maid and her autistic son Francis, is convinced that the stories of the serpent refer to a surviving species, a living fossil. The superstitious locals hang horseshoes from Traitor’s Oak and see ‘signs’ in the landscape around them, while the village vicar, a man whose interpretations sit somewhere between the Old Testament and The Origin of Species, ‘finds himself treading a line. The line is narrow and on either side it’s a hell of a way to fall’ (270).
The Essex Serpent takes the timeless myth of a monstrous sea-dragon, and sets it within the late nineteenth century world of Darwinian scientific rationalism. Clocks ticking slowly, broken sundials, tolling bells, the ‘hypnotist’s watch’ of a cat’s tail assume a special, existential significance in After Me Comes the Flood. But in the historical novel that is The Essex Serpent time is everywhere. The book opens on New Year’s Eve and unfolds month by month over the course of a year. It is 1893 in London and Perry’s city is overshadowed by the image of Greenwich Observatory; of maritime activity and of Mean Time; of seamen marking time and prisoners serving time; of philosophers wasting time and middle class Londoners squandering it.
Time in this novel is also a measure of scientific progress, evolutionary theories and new beginnings. It is within this space of time that The Essex Serpent pursues the distinctly fin de siecle tensions between the sacred and secular, science and superstition. It is, as Perry herself suggests, an historical but very contemporary novel:
'I really wanted to write a version of the 19th century that, if you blinked, looked a little like ours. I wanted to write a version of the Victorian age that wasn’t a theme park of peasoupers and street urchins. The more I looked, the more I found that not a great deal has changed – an ineffectual parliament, the power of big business and the insecurity around housing. And contemporary Conservatism going back to this idea that morality and poverty are in some way linked.'
What is perhaps most striking about Perry’s writing to date is its startling, oblique originality. Perry has described the gothic elements of her fiction as ‘more a sensibility than a genre’ and this rings true in terms of the almost freakish, one-off uniqueness of After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. These are novel novels in the extent to which they refuse to follow the obvious rules and conventions.
James Procter, 2017