The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Opening sentence: “A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.”
Sometimes, when a book comes with so much hype and praise (such as being the Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2016), it just doesn’t live up to the expectation for me. However, I am pleased to say that was not the case for The Essex Serpent.
I started to read this on New Year’s Eve, which, weirdly, was the exact title on the opening page. Being a fan of fateful encounters like this, I took this as good omen for the book.
Based upon a real pamphlet from 1669 entitled, Strange News Out of Essex, (also the first chapter title) that warned people of the ‘Essex Serpent’, this is an easy read to sink into. I was straight away swept up in the brooding, suspenseful atmosphere of Victorian London and Essex.
We’re introduced to newly widowed Cora Seabourne (grateful to be out of an abusive marriage), her (never stated but seemingly autistic) son Francis and his nanny, Martha. They move temporarily to Essex so Cora can pursue her passion of fossil finding and there they are introduced to the local Reverend and his family. This was the story thread that intrigued me the most – that of Cora and her friendship with the Reverend William Ransome. Perry is such a skilled writer that the simmering sexual tension between them is not directly stated, but you feel it coming off the pages.
The other plot lines are seamlessly woven throughout, from Cora’s admirer Dr Luke Garrett and his quest to advance medical science to the Reverend’s wife Stella and her own personal battle, all taking place while the threat and fear of the serpent looms over them. There is also a Victorian housing crisis sub-plot that I felt didn’t really add anything to the novel and personally would have preferred if those pages were dedicated to the Cora / William story.
I finished this book with the satisfaction of a great read, but this feeling was laced with slight disappointment that what I wanted to happen, had not. This is the downside of getting attached to certain characters, you feel you know them and want to plot out their story yourself!
A note on the jacket cover you see above, I adored it. Of course, you should not judge a book etc, but if it will entice you to initially pick up the book and subconsciously place a tone in your mind, then it has done its job of gaining an audience for the book. You have to admit, if you saw a display of this cover in a bookshop, it would be hard not to go over and see what’s on those pages.