The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry


My latest read was a book that needs little introduction having been one of the most talked about books this year. And Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent was a big hit with booksellers having been named this month as Waterstones book of the year. As I began to read I was immediately hooked, and it is safe to say that this is a novel more than worthy of its hype.

“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 and commons!”…”Those were the years of the Essex Serpent, be it scale or sinew, or wood and canvas, or a little but the ravings of madmen”

Beginning in Victorian London, the events of The Essex Serpent are inspired by a real life pamphlet published in the late seventeenth century which alerted villagers to the presence of a dangerous creature, one capable of causing serious harm. And when Cora Seaborne, in the wake of her husband’s death, moves out of her London home to Essex with her son, she soon hears rumours of this mythical beast that has claimed human lives. Cora was never satisfied in her marriage; having been subjected to an abusive relationship at the hands of her husband, and she never felt comfortable in her role as a society wife. Instead, she considered herself something of an amateur naturalist, and becomes excited at the prospect of finding the truth about the Essex Serpent, convinced that this local myth could actually be an undiscovered species. And in the quest for the Serpent we see a coming together of ideas, a combination of religion, science and superstition.

“We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I”

In addition to the characters journey in getting to the bottom of the Serpent’s existence and its affect on the villagers of Aldwinter, we also get an insight into the complexities of the human heart. When Cora arrives in Aldwinter she becomes friends with the Reverend William Ransome and his family, including his wife Stella – a woman who is seriously ill and has a mysterious obsession with the colour blue. And despite Cora and Will’s contrasting opinions in terms of their faith and their views on science, the two develop an intense relationship, finding themselves drawn together. We also learn of Cora’s relationships with her old companion Martha, a doctor friend who she knows as ‘The Imp’ and her curious son Francis, and the portrayal of friendship provides a wonderful insight into life and love. This is such a compelling story that is beautifully told. I found myself in awe of Perry’s sumptuous prose, and there were many passages of writing that I paused to read all over again, words to savour. I loved the inclusion of letters between the characters on their respective journeys, which gives the reader a glimpse at life and all its intricacies, the long held secrets and desires, and what they learn about themselves and each other.

“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of anything anymore: that all got used up a long time ago. But something’s here – something’s going on – something isn’t right…”

I loved The Essex Serpent and found it to be a gripping, enthralling story. It is a novel filled with intelligence and warmth, which tells the story of a myth and those who seek the truth – the truth about the beast, and about themselves. It is a wonderful story about love and life, about faith, folklore and friendship in a mysterious landscape.

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