Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Apologies - it's been a while since I've posted a review. This is partly because I've been busy doing other things - but mostly because I haven't read anything lately that's really blown me away. So if you have, do please tell me in the comments.

That's not to say I haven't read some good books. The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, is a very good book. But somehow, it didn't quite seize my imagination. It's probably just me; maybe I haven't read it at the right time - because there's no doubt that it's absolutely beautifully written, and it's won some seriously impressive prizes. Perhaps it's a book you should read in the winter, in an isolated house, by a cosy fire, with the mist curling round outside and just the occasional lonely cry of a seabird.

As you may guess from this, it's set mostly on the Essex coast - a particularly liminal area, because it's not only at the boundary of land and sea, but there's also that shifting middle ground of marshland (as there was in Elly Griffith's very different books, the Ruth Galloway mysteries). It's the perfect setting for a story with an uncertainty at its heart - is the Essex serpent, a mysterious and possibly lethal sea creature, real, or merely a product of over-active imaginations? No-one is quite sure. The heroine, Cora Seaborne, certainly wants it to be real; she wants it to be an undiscovered species which she will identify so that she can then take her place alongside Mary Anning, the fossil-hunter, as an eminent woman of science.

Set in Victorian times, it has the flavour of a gothic romance. But the characters have a contemporary liveliness and individuality - they won't be pigeonholed. So Cora, though clearly a strong and independent woman has, after the death of her husband, emerged from an abusive relationship. She has an uncomfortable relationship with her son, Francis, who seems to be on the autistic spectrum; her friend, Martha, is socially and politically active and believes marriage to be a patriarchal straitjacket. (You'll see that though the setting is Victorian, the concerns are modern.)

After her husband's funeral, Cora goes to Essex to hunt for fossils. There she meets a vicar, William Ransome, and his lovely but fragile wife, Stella. She has a friend, Luke Garrett, who's in love with her, and he has a friend, Spencer, who - well, you'll just have to read it. The story of the serpent undulates through it, but it's not really the main point: the heart of the novel is the collection of strong, distinctive personalities: the way they interract with each other, and their strivings to find a way to live which is meaningful, which makes sense of their lives. There are no simple answers for any of them, no pat solutions - and I like that.

So why would I give it 4.5 instead of 5? Maybe it's just because, like Cora, I would have liked the serpent to be real. Which is silly, because it's not that kind of book.


  1. I spend time in that area of the country every year, and it does have a mysterious unsettling quality. I liked the portrayal of the way the characters casually deceived each other and themselves, and it was shot through with sexual desire. I was glad it didn't try to be too Victorian in style (I was very disappointed with Golden Hill recently because it was so mannered). Yes, spot on with your score - I'd shave a bit off a 5 for the frustrating ending. For fans of Thomas Hardy, I think.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Moira. I very much liked it that the characters didn't always make the obvious choices - but I'm honestly not quite sure what I think about this thing that you sort of transplant very modern concerns into an utterly different era. Maybe it's unavoidable - and maybe historical fiction would be irrelevant if you didn't do that. But I'm a little uneasy about it.

  3. It may not be just you! I bought it a few weeks ago and made a start but was soon distracted by another book which I was itching to read. I'll go back to it but it's interesting to learn that it didn't quite seize your imagination.

  4. Glad it's not just me! Just had a look at your blog, incidentally, which looks very interesting - have followed.

    1. Thank you for the compliment and the follow! I also run First Night History and have previously reblogged your History Girls Somme post and your review here of The House by the Lake, which prompted me to buy, read and enjoy!