04 November 2020

Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry book cover
I received this gorgeous copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry for Christmas last year and decided now was the perfect time to read it.

This historical fiction novel begins in London 1893 where we meet recently widowed Cora Seaborne and her son; Cora's companion; and Cora's Doctor friend and his colleague. The narrative soon moves to Essex where Cora meets the local vicar William Ransome and his family in their little community.

The Essex Serpent is a slow moving meandering novel, with the characters orbiting around each other. Cora is searching for fossils and loves being in the outdoors enjoying her newly discovered freedom. It's not long before she learns of the Essex serpent.
"And has Essex yielded any fossils? I saw in the papers some new species was unearthed up on the Norfolk coast after a winter storm: sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth's a graveyard." Page 104
The locals believe the Essex serpent is responsible for a drowning and other mysterious events and an eerie atmosphere is created that has varying impacts on our characters.
"You are a solipsist, Mrs Seaborne - can you really not imagine that I might take a path which differs from yours and be happy walking there?
No, she thought: no, I cannot." Page 166
The story seeps slowly like the creeping tide of the estuary and those looking for a gripping read or a supernatural thriller will be disappointed.

Instead, readers will discover The Essex Serpent is a character study of relationships and contains many themes that play out between the characters: science and religion; medicine and religion; superstition and religion and the big ones of friendship, love and unrequited love.

The friendship between Cora and William is based on a meeting of the minds and was the highlight of the book for me. Late in the book, Perry perfectly captures what it's like to see a close friend after a long absence:
"Both had saved such stores of anecdote and complaint, of tall tale and half-formed theory, that fully an hour passed without pause. Each made an inventory of the other, totting up with pleasure the well-remembered gesture or the phrases used too often, the tendency to withold or exaggerate, the sudden veering-off into fresh pastures which the other followed at a run." Page 345
The Essex Serpent is a quiet character driven book that reminded me a little of the characters in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and those in Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders. So if you enjoyed either of those novels, I believe you'll enjoy The Essex Serpent too.

All in all, this was a slow paced character study with some moments of great writing and one of the most beautiful cover designs of 2016. Reading it several years after the hype has settled, I wanted more story so this was just a good read for me.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I read this book last year but couldn't get into it. It has a beautiful cover though.

    1. Thanks Laura, I'm in love with the cover design too. Sorry you couldn't get into it but it's a very slow moving character focussed novel isn't it? I wonder if a different title would have helped to curb or guide expectations.


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