You can read an introduction and the opening chapter of the Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry here at the publisher’s website.
Nearly all novel writing advice will tell you that the first pages of the novel have to orientate and hook the reader/agent/editor. They should provide the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY of the story, and ask sufficiently interesting questions to make them want to read on. This blog post tries to understand how Sarah Perry achieved this with her amazing critically acclaimed novel The Essex Serpent. What should be remembered is that the novel is set in 1893 so it is only fair to expect some Victorian literary tricks.
The first chapter is titled ‘New Year’s Eve’. The opening lines are,
‘A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle.’
Not much to go on so far. I would say the most noticable things are that it’s written in third person, present tense (a young man walks -perhaps adding immediacy) but then back tracks in time (He’s been) and an atmosphere is building, a sense of foreboding (Black water, cold moon, dregs, stomach turned). The narrator has so far prioritised atmosphere over the W’s usually used to orientate the reader.
The narrative then tells us in the present tense that ‘before the chimes’ he heads down to the turning tide of the estuary where he doesn’t feel the cold through his ‘good thick coat’. Again a bit more atmosphere and a sense that we are somewhere in the past. And then…
‘The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and is tongue is dry. I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, that’ll shake me loose;’
This sentence might have been written by Derren Brown, containing as it does all the elements he uses in his shows, suggestion, psychology, misdirection & showmanship. The title of the novel is The Essex Serpent so we are already primed for an extravagant snake and this wonderful sentence further works our sub-conscious along those lines of expectation.
I count 6 associations with the snake, ‘collar (a grass snake is known as a collared snake) rasps, nape, neck, constricted, tongue, shake’. Some of the words merely sound like snake, other evokes the image or sound of a snake. The cumulative effect is hypnotic.
Descriptions of the estuary and marsh and the moon all continue to add atmosphere. The young man goes nearer to the water and thinks he’ll go for a dip, the ‘Blackwater holds no fear’.
But something alters in the turn of the tide or a change of the air; the estuary surface shifts – seems…to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse…
After being ‘seized by dread’, when the wind lifts he feels absurd and we leave him at the end of the chapter slipping off his shirt for ‘just a quick dip’.
Our attention should have been on the suggestion of the serpent and the marshy landscape, in the opening chapter these are the WHO and the WHERE. The question of WHAT ‘something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales’ actually is and WHY something so gothic or prehistoric is in an Essex estuary are pertinent. These questions occupy the characters for the length of novel and many more besides but there is no rush to introduce everything at once.
The event in the opening chapter is, however, critical to the events that follow. We find out a little later in novel that our nameless young man is washed up with a broken neck. His death spurs the local belief that the Essex serpent (a dragon first ‘recorded’ 300 years prior to the setting of the novel) is back. It sets up the gothic atmosphere and mystery of the story.
The main characters are not introduced until a few pages later, even the beginning of chapter 2 opens with a wide lens (omniscient narrator) view of Victorian London (given the reader a better sense of WHEN) before focusing in on the first character Dr Luke Garrett and finally a mention of the heroine Cora.
This slow introduction seems to me to mimic the Victorian style of novel writing (when attention spans were long) and is therefore appropriate in the context of this novel but might not work so well in a modern setting.
While the first chapter works, I feel it doesn’t do complete justice to, or indicate, the wonderful characters (excluding the serpent) and love story that follow.
Only one week left of Nanopoblano – Yeah