The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry was my January book for the From My Bookshelf Challenge 2023.
Quick Review (read on for full review)
A richly written tale, full of interesting characters, vivid settings and beautiful prose. 4 / 5
Summary (from Goodreads)
Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne’s spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.
I’ve always said there are no mysteries, only things we don’t yet know, but lately I’ve thought not even knowledge takes all the strangeness from the world.
(From The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, page 217)
I’m not sure what is about Essex but they sure do like their myths of dragons and serpents! I had been introduced to the story of another serpent, which hails from just down the road from where this book is set, by Him-Indoors, in a place called Wormingford. Naturally, not believing Essex to be inundated by dragons, I’d wondered if the one in this story was the same. How interesting to learn that it wasn’t, or that Essex suffered an earthquake which registered 4.6 on the Richter scale. I do love it when fiction is a source of fact!
Once I finished the book, I felt rather than this being a story, with a beginning, middle and end, what you have is a snapshot into the lives and thoughts of a range of characters, all of whom were well-drawn, authentic, interesting and entertaining. Yet I felt there was no story to speak of, no direction to the tale. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t think the book was worth reading, or that I didn’t enjoy it. I did. The story flows between and around these characters, and most of them interconnect in some way to Cora Seaborne and her desire to discover the truth behind the mystery of the Essex Serpent in the wake of her cruel husband’s death, whilst dwelling on the nature of relationships and friendships.
The cast of characters is fairly extensive. Cora Seaborne is interesting as the convention-breaking, Mary Anning-inspired wealthy widow. Dr Luke Garrett was entertaining as the boundary-pushing surgeon who is consumed almost entirely by his profession. But my favourite character was that of the determined Martha who is Cora’s companion and the nurse/nanny to Cora’s son, Francis. Her need to make the lot better for those of her class and background means no matter her audience, she will talk of social reform.
The settings were well-described and I could easily imagine each of them. Aldwinder, the fictitious Essex village, and the Blackwater Estuary were particular favourites, though the glimpse we are given of Colchester and the home partially destroyed by the earthquake were captivating.
The book cover is, of course, gorgeous, with a William Morris feel to it, and it was this which first persuaded me to the read the book. Another point worth noting is there are some truly delightful and poetic passages, with rich and flowery sentences, within the story.
Just a heads up: if you don’t like reading about horrible things happening to animals, there is a passage you might not enjoy in this book. I didn’t like it and it contributed to the loss of a star.