Relationships, in all its forms, can be fickle things, constantly surprising us in ways that we don’t always want or expect. Such is true in Sarah Perry’s Victorian novel, The Essex Serpent – an exploration of the human mind and self when faced with the complexities of love, society, and belief.
The story centres around Cora Seabourne, a young widow and keen amateur naturalist who decides to travel away from London with her son and female companion. When she learns of the Essex Serpent, a mythical sea creature said to be responsible for a mysterious death in the remote village of Aldwinter, her curiosity piques and she sets off in the hopes of discovering a new species. Meanwhile, the local vicar William Ransome is fighting a losing battle against the rising fears of his parishioners. While he is determined that the rumours are a result of moral panic, the ongoing troubles in the village challenge his views, and an unexpected friendship develops between Cora and Will both rewarding and destructive to those around them.
The glowing reviews and accolades that this book has received attest to the skillfulness of Perry’s atmospheric writing. Every description is exquisitely crafted in a way that allows you to wallow in Essex’s coastal landscape, with scenes of dreamlike renderings presenting nature at its best:
‘On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels. […] On Aldwinter common the oaks shine copper in the sunblast; the hedgerows are scarlet with berries. The swallows have gone, but down on the saltings swans menace dogs and children in the creeks.’
Perry’s characters, while diverse and clever in their own way, are something I’m mixed on. I feel that we have only skimmed the surface of each relationship presented to us, and as a result, the anticipated tension didn’t quite translate through the story or capture my interest. The somewhat modern dialogue and references also left the characters bordering on the unrealistic side, though I appreciate her inclusion of strong, unconventional women with contemporary views.
If you’re looking for a slow gothic read to complement those rainy nights, this is the book for you.
Reviewed by Tracey Wong
The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail