Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerrThe Essex Serpent is a refreshingly modern historical novel, set in 1893. It follows the story of Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and released, at last, from an abusive marriage. Eager to enjoy her new-found freedom, she abandons London for the Essex Coast, planning to scour its cliffs and beaches for fossils, and determined to track down the mysterious Essex Serpent (which she hopes will turn out to be an undiscovered species). She meets the very practical minister of Aldwinter (William Ransome) who is keen to quell any rumours of serpents and, despite their opposing views, they are immediately drawn to each other.   

The doctor who treated Cora’s husband is also attracted to her eccentricities, and jealous of Martha (her companion), while both of them soon become envious of her new friendship. Yet Cora seems oblivious to the effects of her own charismatic personality on her friends, and more determined than ever to make the most of every opportunity.

The book is set at the turn of the century, at a time of immense change, from conventional views on the role of women, to the place of religion in a world full of new technology and scientific advancement. The plot seems perfectly designed to reveal the trends and complexities of this particular period, exploring the impact of mental illness, the ethics of medical experimentation and people’s reactions to disability, autism and poverty.

Mythical tales, superstition and rumour have a strong hold over the residents of Aldwinter, where sea mists and strange disappearances feed into a common dread of something, out there, in the water. Sarah Perry has created an atmosphere of intrigue and fear, where science and religion both seem at a loss to explain what’s going on.

I enjoyed Perry’s writing style. She has a strong, authoritative voice, overlaid with a subtle sense of irony. There is plenty of humour, but also a real sensitivity in describing the confusion and uncertainty of those who live in a fast-changing world. I like the way she portrays friendship, as something complex and multifaceted. Cora Seaborne is a fascinating, likeable character, whose stubborn nature and experience of abuse make her very real. However, the ending of the novel is a little flat. The true nature of the Essex Serpent is revealed, but many other aspects of the plot are left open-ended.

Even with (and perhaps partly because of) this open ending, the novel does achieve a sense of tangibility which is rare in historical fiction. Even minor characters are fully developed, and the atmosphere of opportunity, curiosity and fear permeates throughout, producing a book which succeeds in transporting the reader.

This is a story which grips you from the very first page, and the true nature of the Essex Serpent remains an intriguing mystery until the final revelations at the end of the novel. It deals sensitively with the age-old debate between science and religion, the fear of the unknown and the trauma of domestic abuse; a book which will stay with me for a long time to come.

The Essex Serpent is (very appropriately) published by Serpent’s Tail.

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