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The Essex Serpent

Essex Serpent Book Cover Image

Author: Sarah Perry
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: 2016
Pages: 422
ISBN: 9780062666376
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Mystery

Synopsis: Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

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Cyndi's Review

Looking back at the books we’ve reviewed this year, 2017 has been great for reading. Of the four books Renee and I dueled over, three were a joy to read (the fourth was all right, but not my cup of tea). I am very happy to report that The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is another stellar read.

Perry takes her reader through the end of an abusive marriage into the freedom a heart and body experience when the shackles are removed. Cora Seaborn, a woman with a large personality and strong opinions, finds herself a well-off widow after her sadistic husband dies. She leaves London society and takes her son Francis and companion Marth to the Essex countryside in pursuit of fossils and the study of natural history.

Martha, an outspoken proponent of the poor and fair housing, (large issues in Victorian England) isn’t much taken with Essex’s small-town vibe, but she loves Cora and her loyalty keeps her by her friend’s side. Francis, on the other hand, enjoys the solitude the country affords him. He is free to roam and collect trinkets, arranging them in an order only he can understand.

While tromping through the Essex mud, Cora runs into her old friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose. They urged her to seek out the Ransom family in Blackwater where a mysterious sea serpent is terrorizing the village.

Cora, while uninterested in meeting vicar Ransom and his family, is moved to investigate the serpent. She imagines an ancient ichthyosaurus lurking in the depths of the oceans for millions of years only to surface in Blackwater. Her love of fossils and natural history forces her to pack up Martha and Francis for the tiny village.

Cora does eventually run into the vicar and his family, and is shocked by what she finds. Being a thinking woman of science, Cora’s expectations of the vicar and his wife fall on the Puritanical. But she couldn’t be more wrong. Will Ransom is tall and strong with a well-tempered faith. His wife Stella is beautiful beyond measure with a sharp mind and love of gossip. Their children are loving and a bit mischievous. All in all, a fast friendship forms that is fraught is tension and attraction.

There is so much to say about Perry’s writing. It’s easy to see the influence of writers like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelly. I often forgot this book was from 2017. Perry’s rich prose and beautifully rendered descriptions and analogies often gave me pause. And while many of the themes are dark and solemn in nature, Perry finds the humor hiding in the corner and invites it to dance by the fire.

The Essex Serpent is very much a character-driven novel. Cora is strong but fragile. Martha carries a silent resentment with her like a lock of her lover’s hair. Francis, clearly on the spectrum, is misunderstood and approached by his mother with caution and fear. Will Ransom is a man torn by his love for two women. Glass-like Stella who all fear will break at any moment, contains a vitality none can match. The ambitious and ugly Dr. Luke Garret is fiercely loves Cora and loses so much in the process. And the serpent who lurks below the blackwater, waiting for its next victim.

The slow, steady pace of Perry’s novel mirrors the muddy setting of Blackwater. The reader feels they are always on the verge of discovery only to find more layers of mud and muck in their way. Scraping away these layers is an adventure into the human condition. The Essex Serpent was such a joy to read, I was a little sad when it ended, but satisfied with the results. Not all need be roses to be sweet.

Renee's Review

This year, I've read three books that have been squarely placed on my “favorites" shelf: the achingly beautiful A Stranger in Olondria and Throne of Darkness, the superb conclusion in Douglas Nicholas's Something Red trilogy. The third is this novel, The Essex Serpent. What a way to end the Dueling Librarian reading list for 2017! Sarah Perry's novel, set in 1803 England, is chock-a-block full of everything I love in a novel, from the utterly convincing and lovingly constructed portrayals of all characters down to the most minor, to the clearly painstakingly selected language of each paragraph. The Essex Serpent follows the lives of a knowledgeable and kind patrician woman and her loyal companion, a well-meaning and open-minded parson and his wife and children, and a cast of characters from London and Colchester as they navigate the ins and outs of life. Meanwhile, rumors of an ancient sea beast resurfacing result in odd, delightful, and harrowing turns of events.

I loved the timeline of this novel. Perry follows the characters over the course of one year, from New Year's Eve through December. Each section begins with a description of the season - the smells and sounds - and the particular goings on of the main characters. It effectively submerged me in London or the English countryside every time.

But aside from Perry's insane ability to draw scenes out of nothing and create people you want to sit down in a pub with, there was also her integration of the social and political ills and mores of the early nineteenth century into a novel that could have stood on its own without them. That is to say, it could have, what with the full cast of characters and various subplots aplenty, but with the addition of these facets of English society, Perry drew an almost pristine picture of how life might have looked once upon a time (that is, if “once upon a time" included whispers of a giant serpent as they found their way into daily life). Perry discusses the poverty crisis in London, the rise of a Socialist movement in response, the varying layers of social strata in nineteenth century England and the effect this hierarchy had on personal relationships, and the position of women at a time when educational opportunities were only open for a few. Every dollop of historical information provided simply added to the brilliance of the overall story.

In fact, some of the social commentary in this novel is still prescient today. For instance, how appropriate of a statement is this in 2017?

"It's not the function of the wage slave to think. The girls at Bryant and May, the boys down in the quarries: d'you think they've time to think, to plot, to revolutionize? That's the great crime: that no one need be put in chains when their own minds are shackles enough."

Brilliant. There were so many times during the course of this book that I wanted to set it aside and tell someone about the brilliant quote or passage I had just read. This Thanksgiving, I am exceedingly grateful to have read this book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I took a course on writing not long ago about placing social commentary in your work, and how not to do it. The suggestion was to never browbeat, but suggest and allow the reader to draw their own conclusion. I felt South Pole Station and The Essex Serpent did that exceedingly well. I love how Perry enters into the consciousness of her novel the plight of the poor and how the rich either profited from raising rents or simply did nothing to change things. So many times there was a quote like the one you mentioned in your review that I have to read over and over. Perry's use of language left me wanting more. Such a great book!

Agreed. I loved that Perry incorporated social commentary in The Essex Serpent without getting preachy about it; just enough of a hint to allow the reader to see the points of view of the day and make a choice about their own feelings. There was also no clear "good guy" when it came to social issues. Martha and Spencer may have had a completely different idea for the correct actions to take to assist the poor, but both had their hearts in the right place. Even the posh and slightly stuck up Charles Ambrose had his high points. It was certainly a cast of "real" people, and not stereotypes.

Excellent analogy with the layers of the Blackwater! Each chapter is a new strata of revelations, and in the end the reader goes on the journey right along with Cora. It was almost a cathartic read.

The way Perry incorporates classism into her narrative helps build a picture of privilege the characters have, whether they know it or not. Cora is clearly well-off, but whether she's aware of how lucky she is remains unclear. If she had been a working-class widow, she most certainly wouldn't have been sloshing through the Essex mud looking for fossils. Her wealth serve as a juxtaposition to the poverty Martha so passionately wants to end.

I like the idea of the novel being cathartic. It was. I didn't have this overwhelming sense of loss that I've experienced with other books I've loved. I didn't feel unhappy with how events played out. Instead, it was very much like the ebb and flow of relationships in real life, and how things just seem to drift around and settle. The overall effect was incredibly pleasurable and, well, grounding.

It did seem to me that Cora was oddly unaware of her privilege. This is a little strange, considering how outspoken Martha was about class distinctions, however I was willing to let it pass because it was almost as if Cora needed to be that innocent. After having survived an abusive marriage, she was only cognizant of the fact that she was free - all else seemed to fall away. Her childlike approach to life (likely the case due to being cloistered by her husband from a very young age) made the narrative a joy to read; as Cora experienced new life, so did the reader.

Agreed. This novel was quite realistic. One felt that the events in this book really could have truly occurred. How odd, then, that when we read The Idiot by Elif Batuman the realism was so irritating, while in this novel it created the perfect setting for the action. I will put that down to the style of writing - random, disjointed events versus Perry's realism, which is rife with fully fleshed out scenes and characters. And a plot. A plot really helps, even gentle, rolling plot lines like we find here.

"Oddly unaware of her privilege" perfectly sums up Cora's behavior. This is something that usually would have bothered me, but I felt her naivety was justified. After enduring abuse for over a decade, she'd earned her privilege. Too bad it can't work out that way for all victims of abuse. In a perfect world. . .

Great juxtaposition of novels. The biggest difference between these realistic novels is that things happened in The Essex Serpent and nothing happened in The Idiot. The Essex Serpent is a year in the life of a town terrified by rumor and myth, and how people tread the waters of life despite not getting what they desire. The Idiot is more of a shopping list of college life; I did laundry, said hi to my crush, he ignored me, went to class, bought ugly shoes at a thrift store. Ugh. So much ugging.

Yes, in a perfect world, all victims of abuse would be able to walk away with a feeling of safety and happiness with the world. Actually - scratch that- in a perfect world, there would be no victims of abuse.

Ha ha, yes - I certainly "ugged" a few times during the course of reading The Idiot. By far, I prefer Perry's work.