The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

This was one of those I kept coming across in lists of ‘Best of 2016’ books. The cover of it is absolutely stunning which has no doubt helped a bit with the book sales, but it’s also a really good book.

From the title it’s a bit difficult to know what to expect. It could be anything really from a wild fantasy detail an epic adventure to slay a great snake, to a TOWIE style drama about a group of girls who keep gossiping about one another – such are the implication of modern slang! Fortunately, what we get is a story a bit more in line with the former, though the fantasy element is replaced by a scientific fascination with myths, legend, bones and rocks.

The Essex Serpent is a different take on a coming-of-age story, in the sense that it is not about a child or a teenager, but instead about a woman who has lived her life so far under the rule of her cruel and abusive husband, and now he is gone and so she is free to be the person she has always longed to be. She, Cora Seaborne, is absolutely brilliant; a Victorian age feminist who Destiny’s Child would have happily sang songs about. She essentially ‘gives up’ the airs and graces she has had to hold on to all this time in favour of men’s clothes and scrabbling in the ground in search of fossils.

Science plays a great part in this novel. Not only is Cora fascinated by paleontology, but her good friend and admirer, the Doctor Luke Garrett, makes significant advances in medical surgery during the course of the story. All this science, however, comes into conflict with the staunch religious views of the William Ransome and the other residents of Aldwinter, the village Cora comes to inhabit when she makes the brave move to Essex from London. This makes for an interesting discussion, particularly in light of the rumours going around of the existence of the eponymous Essex Serpent, said to be stealing ship and killing men. It also makes for an interesting friendship between Cora and William.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what this novel is about because it’s about so many different things. Ultimately I guess it’s about the characters, though in a less pretentious way than Hot Milk is about the characters, and the personal journeys they go on. It’s also about Victorian society and their fascinations and quirks, as well as a study of life in London when compared to life outside the capital.

This is a book in which it is very easy to get lost. I found myself thinking about it at odd times during the day and despite it being a long book, it’s very easy to read. You also want to read it because you want to find out where these characters end up. You want to know if Cora will choose London or Essex along with the additions each location holds, you want to know if Martha will succeed in her mission to save impoverished London and if she’ll end up with Spencer… all these little stories weaving together to create a rich tapestry that is beautifully mirrored in the hardback cover.

I feel like I’ve hardly covered half of it. All you really need to know is that I really enjoyed this and will definitely be looking at Sarah Perry’s other work.

Currently reading:
Book: Inherit the Bones, by Emily Littlejohn
Audio: I See You, by Clare Mackintosh

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