Title: The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Genre: Historical Fiction / Gothic / Literary Fiction
Summary: When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year-old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
I’m so conflicted about this book. Some things really worked for me and others just… didn’t. I wanted to love every single bit of it but I just didn’t and that makes me sad.
The Essex Serpent has a wonderfully intriguing plot, steeped in English folklore but also carrying a Gothic sensibility. Perry bases aspects of her novel on a real pamphlet which was printed in 1669 about a ‘Monstrous Serpent’ which lurked in Essex and by doing so, Perry taps into the real history of England and, in particular, England’s rural areas. The events of the book are set in 1893 which allows Perry to delve into everything which is good about that decade, from the resurgence in Gothic literature which fuelled the imaginations and suspicions of its readers to the very real conflict between science and faith along with some rather questionable scientific methods. Cora, one of the protagonists, sets out to discover what the Essex serpent truly is but this story is about so much more than just a mysterious serpent which lives in the marshes of Essex.
I thought that the writing was, quite frankly, amazing. Perry’s late Victorian London feels authentic and well-researched, something that doesn’t always come across in historical novels, and that lends a sense of confidence and certainty to the writing itself. It doesn’t stumble on details but it also doesn’t spend all of its time attempting to convince a reader that this is genuine and accurate. I didn’t really expect anything less in terms of research integrity from Perry though, knowing her academic background and such. I did, however, expect the writing to be dull and weighed down in unnecessary description and boring detail. I usually find historical fiction tedious but Perry’s writing is intelligent, witty, and fluid. I was drawn into the story completely because Perry’s writing was immersive and exhilarating, I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page. I absolutely fell in love with Perry’s elegant writing style in this novel and I just can’t fault it.
One aspect of this book that I just didn’t like was the characters. I found them flat, and bland, and boring. These characters just didn’t inspire any emotion in me, either good or bad, and it put me off the book somewhat. I didn’t connect with them at all. I didn’t even hate any of them. I feel almost indifferent towards them and that created some distance between me, as a reader, and the events of the book. I really wish that I could have connected to just one character, any character, but they all evaded me.
Overall, I definitely have mixed feelings about this book but it is still a fantastic book. I really believe that The Essex Serpent is worth reading and I would highly recommend it. Don’t let my disinterest in the characters put you off as I’m sure that most people do not feel the same way as I do. I could happily read this again even knowing that the characters aren’t my cup of tea.
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