I truly felt lost within the mists of time.
Last month, I wrote a less than positive book review on Sarah’s Perry debut novel ‘After Me Comes The Flood’. Though, it was the upcoming author’s second novel ‘The Essex Serpent’, which I was actually introduced to first. Based on some stellar reviews, being shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and winning the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016, I was very much looking forward to getting stuck into the 417-page novel. Besides all that, Essex is where I’m from!
Tell Me About It ———–‘The Essex Serpent’ is set against the backdrop of 1890s Britain during a time of technical development and scientific endeavour. Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, has been liberated from an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant civil servant. Relieved of her duties and “stripped of code and convention” she seeks refuge in her late childhood memories and escapes the rigidity of the claustrophobic city for the wild and open landscape of the Essex county, in the Spring. In traditional feminist style, Cora doesn’t identify with the conventional expectations of a Victorian lady. Instead, the young ‘Mary Anning’ dresses for practicality and enjoys getting close to the mud and the raw beauty of the natural landscape. When Cora hears the folktale of the Essex Serpent which has apparently come to life and is abducting the locals of the Blackwater Estuary, she cannot resist investigating.
“There is strange news out of Essex…”
Writing Style———–I feel that there is a high level of intelligence to Sarah Perry’s writing as she has a wonderful gift for composing poetic and flowing descriptive passages of the Essex of her childhood (Sarah Perry did study Creative Writing at Royal Holloway); such as those of the marshes across the Essex coast and the sensoria of the wet woodlands. I truly felt lost within the mists of time and winds off the coast. There is also the beautiful prologue that explores the way in which time manifests itself in different ideas and abstract forms. It’s the kind of writing I aspire to achieve, though regrettably with only moderate success!
Themes & Characters —————There are various themes which ‘snake’ their way throughout the narrative of the story. The most prominent character, the local parish priest, who is a person of faith but reluctant to surrender to superstition. Whereas Cora, a woman of science, is irresistibly drawn to folklore and fear-inducing rumour. Their burgeoning friendship as well as juxtaposing characteristics make for a delicate and intriguing relationship. The nature of faith and faith in nature intertwine throughout Perry’s novel, which has a strong respect for friendship and a humanity. I also appreciated Perry’s contemporary approach to a traditional social setting with her recognition of Cora’s son, Francis’s Autism, which would have undoubtedly gone undiagnosed in Victorian times
Thoughts?————– The Essex Serpent is compelling, though equally complex and again I felt the plot began to lose its way, which is a great shame. The story repeatedly jumped between characters and philosophical concepts, as opposed to focusing on the narrative and the mystery itself. About halfway through, long and winding passages filled with red herrings and abstract ideas overwhelmed the story, and I just couldn’t finish it! And so to me, the Essex Serpent remains a mystery. You could argue that this only fulfils the wistful beauty of the parish myth. However, ‘The Essex Serpent’ is an initially promising book with simply lost potential. Perhaps I’ll come back to ‘The Essex Serpent’ one day and even write a revised review!
Despite my personal difficulties with getting through the novel, I would still very much recommend it for its beautiful passages alone, with a 3.5-star rating. This paperback publication also includes a selection of thought-provoking questions for budding reading groups to prompt discussion, and there’s an interesting interview with Sarah Perry in the back. Have you read ‘The Essex Serpent’? Tell me your thoughts!
First published in 2017 by Serpent’s Tail.
Written by Sarah Perry, front cover design by Crow Books.