Posted on December 2, 2017
50. ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
Reading The Essex Serpent made me realise that I love a very specific genre: a rebellious woman scandalises a Victorian-esque society by tramping around the countryside looking for a semi-mythical, dragon-like creature. (I told you it was very specific.)
This premise obviously applies to Marie Brennan’s brilliant Lady Trent series of novels, and I was reminded of these books when I started reading The Essex Serpent. Suffice it to say, then, that this book hooked me from the first page.
Cora Seaborne is newly widowed, but she isn’t as distraught about this as her society friends expect her to be. She moves from London with her son, Francis, and her dear friend, Martha, to Essex, where she hears rumours that a mythical serpent is living in the river, killing animals and drowning children. A naturalist at heart, Cora sets out to find the mysterious serpent and prove it to be a previously undiscovered flesh-and-blood creature. Along the way she meets Will Ransome, a nature-loving local vicar, and his wife, Stella. Over the course of nearly a year, relationships become entangled and the fear of the serpent reaches fever pitch. But will it ever be found?
The Essex Serpent has received a lot of praise. This year it was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and it won the Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. I first heard about it on YouTube, where it did the rounds and was heaped with positive reviews. Often hype like this can lead to disappointment, but not in this case. I think it is all well-deserved – this book is extremely good. Perry’s writing is rich and poetic, but it’s also very readable, driving the story forward and carrying the reader along with it. (That’s not to say that The Essex Serpent is fast-paced, but it’s never boring: Perry takes her time over a story worth taking her time over.) Perry is also very very good at describing scenery, and the sights and smells and textures off nature truly breathe among the pages of this book.
The characters are complex and believable, so that you can’t help but care about them, whether it’s passionate but capricious Cora, gentle but stubborn Will, or otherworldly Francis with his peculiar collections and habits. There’s a strong thread of romance running throughout this novel, which I wasn’t expecting, and it’s especially nice to see a story set in the Victorian age that isn’t all about prudishness and repression and stiff upper lips. All the characters have their passions and they’re often worn on their sleeves, and there’s plenty of lust and sex here too.
The central theme of the novel is exemplified by Cora and Will’s relationship: essentially she is science and he is religion, and the two often butt heads about their beliefs, but this doesn’t stop them from becoming very close friends. Of course, this idea is reflected by the central mystery of the serpent, which could have the fear taken out of it by scientific classification, or could be ballooned into more than it is by myth and superstition. It’s interesting to see how each character reacts to the story of the serpent, because of what this reaction reveals about them.
I could keep writing about the numerous fascinating themes of this book (social housing in London, female bodily autonomy, etc), about Perry’s razor-sharp style (the writing is a masterclass in characterisation and multiple perspectives), and the novel’s heart-pounding closing chapters, but I don’t want to give too much away about this wonderful book. I didn’t know a great deal about it going in, and I think that was part of its charm: The Essex Serpent is a delightful voyage of discovery and I revelled in every page.
“We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.