The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

30 Jan 2018

I've made myself a little bit of a loose goal when it comes to books. I really want to read more for pleasure and not just for uni, which I am doing, but I'd like to do a book review at least once a month. Now, this might be difficult once I get back into assignments and whatnot, but for now, let's just enjoy this one! I'm a sucker for looking at books on Amazon and decided to place a cheeky little order just after Christmas. I picked up 3 books and one of them was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I'd seen it in Waterstones and it's beautiful cover always pulled me in, so I thought it was about time that I bought it and gave it a read!

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.
I was immediately hooked after reading that blurb. I'm a sucker for all things to do with the Victorians, so when I saw that this book was set in 1893, I didn't need to read the rest. However, I was also intrigued by the idea of religion confronting nature, and not to mention the mysterious beast that is The Essex Serpent. It all sounded like a recipe for a great book to me! And I know you'll all be absolutely shocked when I say that there was nothing in this book that I didn't like.
I'll begin by saying that I loved Cora, the main character. She was feisty without a care in the world, which isn't something that you normally see when creating a female Victorian character. I absolutely loved that she romped around in her men's coat and boots, that her hair was always a mess and that she didn't really take stick from anybody. She's an atheist and feminist that's more interested in fossils than she is in men, which makes for a really interesting character, given the period of history. I also loved Will and thought that if he was a real person, I would fancy him for sure. Because I loved both of these characters, I was massively invested in their relationship, which had me whizzing through the book, soaking up every interaction that they had. The pair of them were written so perfectly in my opinion, and that made for a very compelling read.
Something that has been an issue for a lot of people when reading this book (as I've seen on GoodReads) is how slow it is, but it's not meant to be a fast-paced thriller. This book echoes the writing style of Dickens and Bronte, so the story is quite slow-moving and some of the words can seem kind of superfluous, but honestly, that made it all the more better for me. I absolutely love Victorian and Neo-Vic literature, so this was right up my street. I can see why some people may find that pace frustrating, but like I said, it's not a book that's packed full of action and thrills. It's meant to be a leisurely read. However, I do half agree with the people that have said that there isn't much of a storyline. There definitely is a plot there that follows Cora hunting for the serpent and Will's resistance to the idea of it, but there is much more exploration of social conditions in that era. There was a lot about how typical women should behave, the construction of religious beliefs and superstition, science and the limits of medicine, and relationships, including mother and child. For me, as a Victorian nerd, I was massively into reading about all of these things, so despite the plot being pretty quiet, it made room for each of these themes to shine through.

Speaking of plot, something that I found to be really helpful in carrying it along was the letters that were included between chapters and sections. While some places of the book are a bit jumpy, this helped to smooth out the story and fill in some gaps. They also showed more interaction between characters, with some holding quite intimate moments and others being a bit more fiery. They're fab tools and just allowed me to love the characters even more. It's through these letters that I started to like Dr. Luke Garrett's character. At first, I found him to be a bit of a loose end, but he really shines through these letters.

As I mentioned, Perry's writing style is very reminiscent of classic Victorian novelists which makes the book feel as though it has actually come straight from the 1800s. Not only that, but it also makes the book feel very dreamlike. The way she writes is utterly stunning (and kind of makes me a bit envious), so with all the beautiful language, it's very easy to get swept away like all of her characters do with the idea of the serpent. For each of them, it represents something different, like fear or sexual desire, so each have their own confrontation with it. This works so well with Perry's style and the way that the serpent comes to life for each character is amazing to read.

While I seriously doubt and hope that there won't be a sequel to this book, there are a few loose ends to keep the questions whizzing around your head after you've finished reading. What will happen to Stella? Will we ever know how Cora got her scar? Is Martha happy? As the book ended in such a comfortable place, I don't mind these unresolved questions and kind of like developing my own ideas for them.

Overall, I feel like this was a great book to kick my year off. It took me a couple of weeks to read, but it would've been shorter if I wasn't so easily distracted. It's something that I'd recommend to people that are into Gothic Victorian or Neo-Vic literature, magical realism, deep character development, strong themes, mystical creatures and long walks in the mud. Even though I whizzed through it as quickly as I could, I was sad when I finally put the book down, so I'd quite happily read it again to see if there was anything I missed!

Whould you like to comment?

  1. I've just bought this book!! SO excited to start it after this

    amy x

  2. I keep meaning to read this, I bought it a couple of months ago and keep putting it off for some reason - will definitely be putting it back into the read pile, plus the cover is just so pretty! xx


    1. Ahh definitely give it a go! And I totally agree - that cover is STUNNING x