Friday, 24 February 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Book Review

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

"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!"

The Essex Serpent is written by Sarah Perry and is published (appropriately) by Serpent's Tail.

I've finally got around to reading the hugely popular The Essex Serpent. It's had such a lot of hype that I was worried it wouldn't live up to expectations. However, The Essex Serpent is something wonderfully different; enthralling, Gothic and at the same time very human.


London 1893. When Cora Seabourne's husband dies, she steps into a new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis - a curious, obsessive boy - she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.

When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience fr religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a mythical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter's vicar.

Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other's lives in ways entirely unexpected.

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

Bloody hell, that's a long blurb!

I know it shouldn't matter but before I get into the story I have to mention the cover. I have the Waterstones Gift Edition, which is a beautiful blue, but whatever edition you pick up the cover of The Essex Serpent is gorgeous, and in this case, judging a book by its cover is relevant, the beauty inside lives up to the beauty on the outside (was that incredibly insightful and deep or just stupid?).

Onto the story.
The characters really stood out for me in this book, they are so deeply drawn and real. There is not a single character that feels two dimensional or not quite realistic. The main one of course is Cora and she is a wonderful lead character. I couldn't get enough of her, I felt like I wanted to drink her in, she is so refreshingly unique but also believable. For the time setting she's a very modern woman, finally let free from an abusive marriage. I really felt for her trying to find her way in a world that wasn't quite ready for her yet.

"'Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh, I don't mean without morals or conscience - I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that...'"

The only slight issue I had is that I wanted to know more about quite a lot of characters. I think some of them could have been explored a little more, especially Cora's dead husband; why was he the way he was and what drew him to Cora in the first place?

Another aspect I enjoyed in this book is that is that it looks at love; the different types of love and how it can come at different stages. I won't give anything away but the love story in this book is, again something unique.

Like everything in the book Perry explores love and characters with a relaxed telling. I can see why some people may find this book a bit slow, and even boring, as it is not fast paced at all. But I love the pace, it allows events to unravel steadily and lets us really get down to the depths of the characters.

Of course, one of the most fun aspects of the book is the serpent itself; is it real, is the town imagining it or succumbing to hysteria? Perry handles it so well, steadily blending science and folklore, as well as exploring the effect this mysterious beast has on the characters and the town.

The Essex Serpent has also made me want to learn a lot more, about fossils, myths and also about the geologist Mary Anning who is Cora's hero. I have some reading to do.

I would have given The Essex Serpent 5 stars because it is wonderful, but it just didn't quite have that something that made me adore it. I liked it a lot, maybe even loved it, but it isn't one of my absolute favourites.

Having said that, I can't wait to read more Sarah Perry.

My Rating: 4/5

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