Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Spirited Widow and a Monstrous Serpent

Sarah Perry’s “The Essex Serpent” is a novel of almost insolent ambition — lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate. Set in the Victorian era, it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. 

What definitely turns up is an absorbing story told in a style that’s antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious. The narrative sometimes shifts into an interchange of intimate letters, a bittersweet reminder of what we gave up to send each other emoji and self-destructing snapshots. Raised on the classics and the Bible, Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us.

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