The Essex Serpent Review

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: My Review

Rating: 5/5 stars

You told me once that you forget you are a woman, and I understand it now - you think to be a woman is to be weak - you think ours is a sisterhood of suffering! Perhaps so, but doesn't it take greater strength to walk a mile in pain than seven miles in none? You are a woman, and must begin to live like one. By which I mean: have courage. 

The Essex Serpent was just as complex and mesmerizing as its cover. The lack of a fast-paced mind-blowing plot is very satisfyingly substituted by the journey of a cast of stunning characters who discover the nature of themselves and those around them as well as the workings of science, faith and the human heart. 

The protagonists of the novel are a naturalist named Cora Seabourne and a pastor named Will Ransome, and I loved them both with all my heart. Cora starts out having recently become a widow after the death of her unloving but controlling husband; rather than being full of grief and anguish, her passion for nature and science grows, resulting in her moving to Colchester and then Aldwinter in Essex with her on-the-spectrum son Francis and her friend Martha. Here, she meets Will Ransome, a deep-rooted man embodying religion and superstition. The two characters form a treacherous and heartwrenching bond with the tension between science and religion at its core. They engage in a dialect of well-drawn arguments and sometimes hostile confrontation; Perry skilfully does not take sides but writes about both respectfully, allowing the reader to make up their own mind. 

However, the two characters' excitement at this new intellectual challenge and at the very presence of one another is something that makes the reader feel slight discomfort, as Will is already smitten with his lustrous wife Stella, beautiful in both body and soul but of increasingly ill health. I actually found Stella one of the most poignant characters and fascinating to see develop; she is on the one hand a fairly piteous figure, created out of docility and piousness, yet Perry really breathes life into her by giving her this ethereal obsession with the colour blue, which ends up tinting a large part of the novel in a way that is both enchanting and alarming. She forms an odd sort of bond with Francis who shares her interest in the natural world and particularly collecting things. He, along with Joanna and Naomi, adds another engaging dynamic to the story as each child sees the world in their own eyes and experiences the phenomena of the Essex serpent in their own personal way, yet they all believe in the omens that haunt the community and try to prevent the world from altering into one that they don't wish to know. They're each full of a youthful innocence that battles with a baffling intelligence and desire for learning; it was incredibly interesting to watch them grow throughout the story. 

Two of my other favourites who added to the rich supply of secondary characters were Martha and Luke, both serving to illuminate issues of the late 19th century that are just as compelling as those of the 21st. Martha is Cora's maid and closest companion, and a character I found to be highly inspirational as she exihibits a social activism that highlights the housing horrors of the poor, exploited and trodden on by rich landlords, mixed with a sexual freedom that unapologetically addresses the misunderstood position of women in Victorian society. Luke is an outright and highly skilled doctor who faces adversity and hostility from minds that are more buried in the mud, but he very much represents the discussion of the moral limits of medicine at a time that thrived with medical progression. 

Perry executed phenomenally well the conflict between myth and superstition and faith and reason and science, all of which clashed over this one potential beast. The Gothic style of the novel orchestrated this perfectly, allowing an atmosphere of mystery to pervade the pages with portents, visions, supernatural events, overwrought emotion and obscure prophecies. The Gothic approach also blurs the boundaries between love and friendship. Cora and Will's relationship is the most unique and enthralling I have ever had the pleasure to read about; I still don't know really whether the sexual tension that lurks between them both is connected to a genuine romantic attraction or whether it is simply cathartic. But as Perry pointed out - like all human relationships, their friendship is one that is capacious and subject to change at any time, not one that can be deduced in a matter of 300 pages.

And, of course, we have the Essex serpent - an ancient myth that, at the core of it all, stands as a symbol for the narrow-mindedness and fear of progress that shrouded the 1800s. The question of the serpent's existence remains unanswered, but the uneasiness with which it plagues the community explores and reveals a lot about the nature of humans; the older adult residents try to find a way of blaming everyone else but themselves, and the sense they try and place in their children's heads only serves to increase their intrigue in the matter. Perhaps these are people who think they fear darkness and the unknown, but in truth they are in love with it because it provides them with an excuse to live and unveil more about the world we live in.  

The prose of this book was absolutely exquisite and a huge factor in my enjoyment of the story. Each and every paragraph is so lyrical and poetic, dark and eerie, interspersed with absorbing streams of consciousness, diary entries and letters, and best of all the breathtakingly captivating evocations of setting and character. Perry executes a consistent atmosphere of anticipation and foreboding nature, a hymn of books and ruins, waves and the moon, that was as close to perfect as it can get. 

Overall, there was no doubt for me that this book deserved a full 5 stars. The Essex Serpent was so many things all at once - numinous, wise, intimate, thought-provoking, haunting, heart-wrenching, and a story where friendship is the real miracle. It's a masterpiece. 


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