The cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is outstanding. I would probably have read it because of the cover alone. But last year The Essex Serpent and its cover took Twitter by storm. And it has been the centre of attention since as it racked up the awards:
- Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
- Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
- Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize
- Long-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize
- Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize
- British Book Awards Fiction Book and overall Book of the Year in May 2017.
And it is now out in paperback.
The story is set in London and Essex, of course, in 1893, and spans twelve months. We begin as Cora Seabourne is widowed. The marriage has been abusive, so there is relief as well as grief. In his last days he had been attended by the brilliant surgeon, Luke Garrett. Nicknamed The Imp for his unusual appearance, Luke has few social skills, few friends, but total confidence in his medical abilities and falls for Cora.
Cora also has a son of about 7. Francis is also distant, and perhaps has a compulsive obsessive disorder. His main support is Martha, Cora’s companion.
Cora inherits enough money for an independent life, and she decides to follow Mary Anning in pursuit of palaeontology, but in Essex rather than Dorset. This is the era when religious faith was challenged by Darwin’s ideas. In the Essex village of Aldwinter the vicar, William Ransome, is struggling with a population who believe that strange goings-on are God’s punishment for their failings. There is a belief in an Essex Serpent, who lives in Blackwater Estuary, in the liminal space between river and sea. There are reports of strange sightings, unexplained disappearances, sickness and dark shapes in the water …
Cora and William are attracted to each other by their lively interest in the world and explanations of how life is. Their story runs alongside the unravelling of the mysteries of the Serpent.
A gothic style?
Genre is not my strong point, but I have frequently read that The Essex Serpent is gothic and it does have a dark mystery or two and an unseen monster, and many characters, many of whom don’t fit well into Victorian society, odd balls, radicals, misfits, and a beautiful woman wracked with TB.
The mysterious, mythical and malign Essex Serpent is attractive to many of the people in the novel, being in some cases the receptacle of their fears. The characters are suitably complex, not sure what they want or believe, or able to dispense with alternative beliefs that contradict each other.
Not everything works out as one might expect. For example, marriage is not considered by Cora or Martha as the next desirable step in life. Martha has socialist ideas, and sees marriage as a form of prison. Cora is enjoying an unconventional life allowed by independence in widowhood.
And sexual love, while present, is not the main motivation of the various relationships in this novel. Rather, friendship between men, women, adults and children is the most positive force, along with a sense of community.
This novel has a great deal to do with rationalism and superstition. While they are in opposition some of the time, it is also clear that they are not exclusive, and one human can entertain both simultaneously.
What I liked about The Essex Serpent
The cover, designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris.
The rich cast of characters, some rural and some enjoying the privileges of Victorian wealth. It must have been an exciting time for medicine, geology, palaeontology and socialist ideas.
I love it that the women in this novel are not sweet and swoony.
I liked the way that life moved through these people and left them with more understanding.
And I enjoyed the setting: the landscape of coastal Essex, the estuary, the natural life, the sounds and sights that unfold throughout the year. Essex is an underrated county. Here we are in June as Cora takes a walk:
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges. (230)
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, first published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. Now available in paperback. 418pp
Booksnob reviewed The Essex Serpent in July 2016. She had some criticisms of the sub-plotting, but generally thought it was a marvellous read.
Helen Parry reviewing for ShinyNewBooks was similarly enthusiastic.
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