The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
‘In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread – his heart halts with it – in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgement: oh what a sinner he’s been – what a black pip there is at his core!’
London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she takes the opportunity to head for Essex, where rumours are spreading that the mythical Essex Serpent is roaming the marshes and claiming human lives. A keen amateur naturalist, Cora hopes that the serpent might be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, a local vicar, and the two strike up an intense relationship.
This book has received no end of accolades; shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017, longlisted for the Baileys Prize 2017, and winner of the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016 – it had a lot to live up to.
This book is very much character-driven, with the focus firmly on the relationships between the characters. Cora and Will are the protagonists but there are several other characters important to the story, and each of their stories focuses on a different kind of love. They are each flawed and searching for something, and feel modern in their problems and desires. Unfortunately, because the cast of characters is so large, there were inevitably some I liked less than others.
With Perry’s focus on characterisation, there isn’t a great deal that happens in terms of plot, but the characters and the writing are so wonderful that this hardly seems to matter.
The writing is beautiful, if a little longwinded at times (no one needs a full page description of a marsh) but that speaks to Perry’s influences, to writers like Dickens and the Victorian tone she has successfully emulated. Its scenes are written in a very cinematic way, so you almost feel as if you are watching a film, and you can imagine that the BBC are longing to get their hands on the rights to turn this into a period drama.
It examines typical gothic themes of reason vs superstition, science vs religion, forbidden desire, hostile landscapes, and faith. The atmosphere is superb; from the bleak Essex estuary to the claustrophobic, poverty-stricken streets of London Perry transports the reader instantly to 1893, to a time when everything was changing and nothing seemed certain.
An entertaining historical novel that leans towards the gothic, this would be a great book to take on holiday with you.
Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.