REVIEW: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was an unhappy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space, she leaves the metropolis for coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year-old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.

Once there, they hear rumors that after nearly three hundred years, the mythical Essex Serpent, a fearsome creature that once roamed the marshes, has returned. When a young man is mysteriously killed on New Year’s Eve, the community’s dread transforms to terror. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, certain that what locals think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species.

Eager to investigate, she is introduced to parish vicar William Ransome, who is equally suspicious of the rumors but for different reasons: a man of faith, he is convinced the alarming reports are caused by moral panic, a flight from the correct and righteous path. As Cora and William attempt to discover the truth about the Essex Serpent’s existence, these seeming opposites find themselves inexorably drawn together in an intense relationship that will change both of them in ways entirely unexpected. And as they search for answers, Cora’s London past follows her to the coast, with striking consequences.

Warnings: Mentions of abuse, cheating

Category: M/F

The Essex Serpent is a gothic period novel, equal parts mystery, drama and tentative romance. It’s a character study of a vibrant cast of flawed people, and explores the ways their lives intersect and affect each other. It’s currently being adapted into a television series, and will prominently feature an actor who happens to be one of my all time favorites, and so I could not pass up reading this before the television adaptation comes out.

This is beautifully written, and the writing style feels a lot older than it is. It is luscious in its prose, words creating vibrant moods with evocative imagery. It does a lot to really steep you in both its story and its landscape, pulling you into the lives of these people and making you interested in the strange goings on in this small Essex town. Of course, one of the criticisms of this book is that the story itself can be a little slow. While some call it boring, I thought it was compelling- but there is no denying that it is a very meandering, slice of life sort of narrative, that focuses more on people than on events. The mystery of the serpent in the Essex waters doesn’t quite have as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked, but the point is less the serpent and more the effect the serpent has on the people of the town. It is a vehicle through which to explore a number of topics including abuse, feminism, the relationship between science and religion, and many others. It’s not action packed, but rather thoughtful, and I really enjoyed my time immersed in it, even if not a whole lot actually happens.

The book does a splendid job of not only making you care for each of its characters, but also to understand each of its characters. Characters often have very opposing viewpoints, in sharp contrast to each other, and the book explores those viewpoints extremely well. Whether it is the religious Ransome’s mistrust of progressive science, Cora’s frustration with religion, various views on gender roles and presentation, or the debates about social justice for the poor, this is a story that presents many subjects from many angles, and that contributes to a very rich understanding of the characters. They are all flawed, and this gives such a perfect picture of humanity that even when I hated their viewpoints I had a solid appreciation for the ways they felt like real people. It’s hard not to love Cora, even when she’s being thoughtless and selfish, just as it’s hard not to love Ransome even when he’s being sexist. Indeed none of them are perfect, and that is why they are so interesting.

I am not certain if this story is an accurate portrayal of the time period it is set in, since it focuses on characters that are extremely counter-culture. Both Cora and her companion Martha are actively progressive; Martha being an activist for class equality and housing for the poor, and Cora being a gender nonconformist who often wears men’s clothes and doesn’t bother to behave in a ‘feminine’ fashion or care about her looks. While there was without a doubt progressive people in this time period, I am not sure how realistic the slightly surprised but otherwise unconcerned reactions of those around them are, and of course the romance between Cora and William Ransome is fueled by many completely unchaperoned encounters and exchanges between the two of them. Cora being a widowed woman and Ransome being the community parson, and a married man with children, may make their exchanges a little less socially scandalous, but I had trouble believing their correspondences and friendship could have progressed so long unnoticed. Otherwise however, the setting is a lovely little picture into small town life, and Aldwinter comes alive in superb way that makes you fall in love with its little streets and interesting inhabitants. I do wish there was more to do with the titular serpent, but the story is really about its people.

There is very little sexual content in this book, and what there is is very briefly described and not lingered upon. Nevertheless, the narrative is steeped with a kind of sexual tension; not just between the main leads but amongst other characters as well. There is a substantial amount of yearning involved on the part of a lot of characters, that pining making for a very satisfyingly emotional story of unrequited love. There is also, from one character in particular, a lot of exploration of sadomasochism in a non-sexual context, playing with these ideas and concepts in ways that are thoroughly exciting to read. The actual romantic and sexual content follows fraught and complicated relationships, especially between the two lead characters, given that Ransome is happily married when his relationship with Cora begins to develop. The emotional confusion is paramount to this story, and creates the most prominent aspect of it’s narrative. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is one very erotic scene of masturbation that I do hope gets included in the adaptation.

All together The Essex Serpent is a gothic drama that straddles paranormal mystery and slice of life. It’s a sometimes slow, and rather bittersweet little story that pulls you through emotionally impactful moments, like snapshots of humanity, and while it isn’t an action packed adventure it is compelling in its quiet moments and lifelike characters.

Have you read The Essex Serpent? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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