The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Published: Serpents Tail (2016)
My review: ****
STRANGE NEWS, they’d say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons!
I imagine that even if you’ve not read The Essex Serpent, you’ve probably heard about it. It was recently announced as the Waterstones Book of the Year (voted for by Waterstones booksellers) and so has been featured heavily in the front of a lot of their stores. Also: Look at that cover. A really beautiful design. The Essex Serpent is a charming, expansive yet familiar book, where you feel you know the characters and can picture yourself walking down the main road in Aldwinter, the village where a heft of the book takes place.
The novel charts the course of a year in the life of Cora Seaborne (primarily) – who is happily widowed (from an abusive husband) in 1890s London, who goes to the country in search of The Essex Serpent. A keen naturalist and Mary Anning fan, Cora has never felt she fits in to society life and would much rather be in a pair of boots and a tweed coat marching through the marshes in search of fossils. The village of Aldwinter, on the Blackwater estuary, has been seized with a kind of mass hysteria after a man was found dead on the marshes at new year, some children having a mass fit and livestock going missing. Will Ransome, the village rector, attempts to curb the panic in Aldwinter by appealing to his flock’s reason. Cora and Will find an intellectual match in each other though a clash in worldviews. The novel charts the development of their friendship, as well as a host of interesting characters in the village and Victorian London.
One of my favourite things about the book is the beautiful, descriptive language used to emphasise the landscape, the seasons and the character of the Blackwater marshes.
“Autumn’s kind to Aldwinter: thick sun aslant on the common forgives a multitude of sins. The dog-roses have gone over to crimson hips, and children stain their hands green breaking walnuts open. Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk.”
This is complete contrast to descriptions of London, where a smaller proportion of the book takes place (with various characters going to and from the city at different points in the year). Perry also has a remarkable way of describing the unsettling half-observations which contribute to the villagers’ fear of the serpent.
“Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot be merely the tug of the moon on the tides.”
Another aspect of the book which I loved is how it encompasses so many topics which we’d typically associate with the Victorian time. Inner London slum conditions, women in society, expressions/repressions of emotion, the growing debate between evolution and religion. Perry however manages to make it all feel new. Nothing feels alien or remote from the time difference, if anything, the characters just seem like normal, well-rounded real people. Not versions of what people imagine historic characters to be! I cannot emphasise enough: This is what fiction should be like!
I really loved the cast of characters in the book, from the confident, complex Cora, to her slightly strange son, to Will, the reasonable and logical vicar, to his wife Stella as she slowly succumbs to the deathly beauty of tuberculosis. Some of Stella’s rambling notes written during the height of her illness are just wonderful. Due to the scope of the novel there are multiple medium-minor characters, and each one feels convincing, and has a reason to be included.
Perhaps the greatest feature of the book is the complex friendship between Cora and Will. To begin with, each is horrified by the thought of the other. In fact, during the course of multiple conversations both are slightly unsettled by what the other says or believes. In each other they have found their intellectual equal, and though they may disagree on divine Providence, they can appreciate the other.
“Each considers the other to have a fatal flaw in their philosophy which ought by rights to exclude a friendship, and are a little baffled to discover it does nothing of the kind.”
I loved the debates between the two – at times teasing and mocking, at other times feisty, furious. This is realistic – we are never under the allusion that these two have a perfect relationship. It is complex and questioned not only by the residents of the village, but they themselves. Is it borne out of respect for each other? Out of a mutual unspoken understanding? Out of a love created by God himself?
This is an immersive, beautifully descriptive and human story. I can only compare reading this to sitting in a comfy chair under a blanket, next to a fire, with a cup of tea. (I would also highly recommend this as a setting for reading the book!) It is well-written, at times wry, at times philosophical, but always intelligent and entertaining.
Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed! Has anyone else read The Essex Serpent? In case you can’t tell, I loved it 🙂