Local novelist Sarah Perry is making waves

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry - Credit: Jamie Drew

Norwich novelist Sarah Perry inhabits the feel and fears of Victorian East Anglia with an uncanny immediacy, writes Rowan Mantell

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry - Credit: supplied

Fossils, faith and folk stories are shaken loose when an earthquake hits East Anglia. The earthquake is real, the most destructive to strike mainland Britain in centuries. This month it reappears as fiction, in a novel by Norwich author Sarah Perry which is already being called a masterpiece. The Essex Serpent, set in the aftermath of the 1884 quake, takes themes of religious faith, scientific discovery, medical advances and folk memory and creates a haunting, passionate and atmospheric mystery.

It’s just her second novel but already Norwich writer Sarah Perry is being spoken of in the same breath as Charles Dickens, and the publication has been listed as a literary highlight of the year.

Her story is set in the 1890s – a period with which Sarah feels an unusual connection as she grew up in a home without television or pop music, in which girls wore dresses and learned embroidery, and the Bible was read at mealtimes.

“I must have come across the Essex earthquake at some point during researching the history of Colchester and the local area, though I don’t recall exactly when or where. I was immediately struck by it because it seems such a very unlikely event to happen in Essex, which is not generally held to be a place of natural wonders and danger!” says Sarah.

But she has written into existence an Essex which shimmers with wonder and danger. In the fictional village of Aldwinter she brings together a young widow with a fascination for fossils and science, and a clergyman holding fast to an enlightenment faith while all around him swirl currents of ancient superstitions and new scientific discoveries.

“I have always been particularly interested in how faith and science sit together. My parents – along with many people I have known – are Creationists, but also extremely intelligent and educated people,” says Sarah. “My father was a materials scientist and during my childhood he did so much to educate me about astronomy, physics, chemistry and so on. He had a telescope, and a microscope, and over dinner in the evenings he’d tell us about experiments he had done in the lab during the day.”

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Her family attended a Strict and Particular Baptist Church, with its traditions rooted in the 19th century. This belief that the philosophies of past centuries were a safer place than modern ideas meant Sarah’s Essex childhood was filled with the novels of the 19th century, the music of Beethoven, the pictures of the pre-Raphaelites and the poetry of the King James Bible.

In the wild and windswept tidal marshes of the Essex Serpent, it is easy to imagine monsters lurking just beneath the lapping water of creeks and estuaries, just as the characters of Sarah’s latest novel have lives in which disease, disability and depravity crowd around the edges of their day-to-day concerns. However, it is not the marshes of Essex, but the city of Norwich that has captured Sarah’s heart. She moved to Norfolk three and a half years ago and says: “I can’t imagine why anyone would live anywhere else”.

Her first novel, After Me Comes The Flood, was set in a disorientating, imagined Norfolk, part Thetford Forest, part north coast saltmarshes. It won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award and launched Sarah into a world of book tours and literary festivals. Her second book is already gathering accolades. Poet and novelist John Burnside says: “Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel, I wonder if it would have surpassed The Essex Serpent?” and calls her “one of the finest fiction writers working in Britain today”.

Sarah says: “I am stunned at the initial reaction to The Essex Serpent, and delighted of course. My ambition as a writer is - more than anything else, I think - to give joy and pleasure to readers; to convey to them the love I feel for my characters, and the places they walk, and to have them feel what my characters feel.”

Her third book is already underway, taking in Gothic horror and Prague, where she spent two months as a writer-in-residence earlier this year. But Sarah promises: “Such is the lure of Norfolk that a section of it will be set here.”

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, (£12.99, published by Serpent’s Tail on June 2) will be launched at the Book Hive, Norwich, on Thursday, June 9