Review: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

the essex serpent 2

London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.

When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar.

Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

Practically bedazzled by The Essex Serpent‘s gorgeous front cover, I’d been longing to read this multi prize-winning wonder for a while before I finally got the chance to pick up my own copy and give it a whirl.

Perry writes with real poise and ease, and it certainly was a joy to be transported back to Victorian times in this tale of myths, murkiness and finding life again. Cora Seaborne and her nanny sidekick Martha are wonderfully empowering feminist characters, although I did find myself wondering on several occasions if such radically independent women really existed at the time (I hope they did!). After the death of her husband, the happiness and joy that Cora finds in her own self-determination is a pleasure to see unfold, as is her relationship of matching intellectual capabilities (and unspoken sexual tension) with married vicar William Ransome.

I loved the disparity between educated, intellectual London with its state-of-the-art surgical procedures taking place and politics about poverty and housing, versus rural Essex where the local people are plagued by superstitions around a mythical and magical serpent-beast which haunts the Blackwater Estuary. Hint: if you hadn’t have guessed it, there is no Essex Serpent. But what is creepy (and fantastical in itself) is the pagan rituals and preoccupations the villagers use to ward away said beast.

I also have to say that some bits of the book seemed a bit random to me. There’s a lot of political debate about contemporary housing issues with feisty socialist Martha leading the way for poor people priced out of their own homes, but I just wasn’t sure if that fitted with the tone of the rest of the book. William’s slightly mad wife, Stella, who contracts consumption, was fun to begin with but I found that she dragged on a bit and her parts became rather repetitive.

I also did that fun thing when reading on a kindle, when I finished the book without really realising it, and then swiped to the next page to find that it was all over, and I had never really felt a sense of resolution, or, had even anticipated that it was about to end. I’m not saying that all books have to come in a complete cathartic circle, but surely it must say something if I was completely thrown by the book ending?

Overall The Essex Serpent is a fantastic read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was, however, a little disappointed with the end, but I certainly look forward to getting into some more of Perry’s work at some point in the future.

What did you think of The Essex Serpent? Was anyone else a little disappointed by the ending? Let me know in the comments!

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