The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I review The Essex Serpent for the Lovereading review panel.

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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.

What can I say about The Essex Serpent? From page 1, I was entranced, swept up and hauled back into late Victorian England – which, as anyone knows, is one of my favourite historical periods. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t romanticise the era. But it was a fascinating time, with so many scientific discoveries and debates, and I can imagine people shouting, ‘oh, what a time to be alive!’, and it meaning something. But also, you know, cholera.

Anyway, The Essex Serpent is a fantastic piece of literature. It oozes intelligence and wit, managing to fully capture the essence of living in the Victorian era, without falling back too harshly on stereotypes. The host of characters are rich and full of life – Cora Seaborne, a fitting surname if there ever was one, buries her abusive husband with a secret smile and heads to Essex and the coast, to dig up fossils and broaden her mind. William Ransome, vicar to a small village, who, ironically, is blind to what he doesn’t understand. His wife, Stella, the perfect picture of the Victorian wife, consumed with consumption. Even the supporting characters are enticing – Luke ‘The Imp’ Garrett, the brilliant yet misunderstood doctor; Martha, suffragist and campaigner for workers’ rights; Francis, Cora’s oddball son.

The narrative is probing yet gentle, knowing yet unconscious. It delves deep into the minds, allowing the reader to explore more than even the characters know, which is a particularly clever way to tell a story, and one I always thoroughly enjoy.

It’s difficult not to compare The Essex Serpent to The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber, the latter being my all-time favourite book, and the former not far behind. Both are set in Victorian England – one with a focus on the sea, the other a focus on the city, one clean and one dirty, like two sides of the same coin. Both feature strong, unconventional women – Cora, the widow, accepted by society but with ideas beyond her sex and her station, and Sugar, the prostitute, with ideas above her station, and a long fall after a short rise. Even some of the names – William Ransome/William Rackham – sound similar, to my delight, and the narrative is not far from Faber’s brilliant way of writing. If Perry hasn’t read The Crimson Petal, I’d be very surprised, and would urge her to devour it, if only for pleasure. (At the very least, watch the BBC miniseries. It was a fabulous adaptation. But I digress.) In short, The Essex Serpent is a beautiful work of historical fiction, and to be likened to a work such as The Crimson Petal is high praise indeed, in my humble opinion.

The Essex Serpent is a complete work of genius. It’s the kind of story every would-be writer aspires to write. It’s rich and full of beauty, raw and gorgeous. The story goes so deep and entwines so many themes and characters, it stretches across many miles and many months, and yet, it still ended too soon. ‘Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!’, indeed. Perry should bask in the glow of this triumph.

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