The Essex Serpent (Review)

In 1669 a monstrous serpent slithered about, as content on land as it was in the water, with large wings, a hideous beak, and eyes like sheep, robbing men of reason and scaring children at night.

Or at least, that’s what the people of Aldwinter believe happened. After an earthquake destroys some buildings and a man is found dead near the water on New Year’s Eve in 19th century Victorian England, it would appear that the Essex serpent has finally returned two centuries later to wreak havoc once more.

As this eerie scene is set in the first few chapters, Sarah Perry then takes the reader to posh London, where recently widowed Cora Seaborne is looking for a change. An amateur naturalist, Cora is not an ordinary woman. Having finally found escape from her abusive husband after his death she forgoes London society to wear a man’s coat, sensible boots, and packs up her son Francis and her companion Martha to look for ammonites and once at Aldwinter, the Essex serpent itself, dreaming of a display at the British Museum for her findings.

Once there, Cora encounters the local Reverend, William Ransome, who categorically denies the existence of an actual serpent haunting the Blackwater and instead believes it to be moral panic caused among his parishioners by old wives’ tales and guilty consciences. It seems that the two are destined to never get along, they disagree over everything and while Will firmly believes in God over the Essex serpent, Cora has faith in the opposite. As they argue, each constantly wonders why they’re so drawn to the other and how they could resolve the growing tension between them.

However, what could be a book solely focused on Cora and Will’s relationship never materializes. Instead Perry expertly navigates the grim English landscape and gloomy London streets to present a book that is rich in detail and lyrical in its descriptions. Each character (and there are quite a few) gets their moment in the sun as everyone puzzles over the mystery of the serpent and the havoc it appears to be causing with disappearing little girls and dead men abound.

Despite the attention given to the serpent and its real or imagined existence, the main focus of the book is on love, and the different guises it can take. Whether it is Cora’s awkwardness with her son, Martha’s at times exasperated affection for her friend, or Will’s love for his wife Stella who does not appear to be recovering from a fever, Perry’s unfolding of these diverse characters is what drives the book. Proving that we are nothing without other people to surround ourselves with, The Essex Serpent is at once moving, dark, and intriguing, punctuated by humour and undoubtedly one of the best books I have read in 2016.

*The Essex Serpent is also Waterstones Book of the Year 2016*

Rohama Malik

Rohama Malik

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