The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail
This book is beautiful! From the gorgeous cover and end papers, to the way the story is written, it’s just a beautiful book.
I want to thank Simon Savidge, from the Savidge Reads blog and The Readers podcast. He’s mentioned this book a few times, and spoke so highly of it that I had to read it. As of this review it’s not yet available in the U.S., so I had to order it from the UK – and it was worth the wait.
So let’s dive in.
In the opening chapters of the book we learn that Michael Seaborne is dying of cancer, and that he is being attended to by his dutiful wife Cora who, although seems to be taking very good care of him, does not seem to be emotionally distraught over the fact that he’s so ill and close to death. In fact, we learn that Michael is an abusive husband, and Cora is beginning to realize that soon she will be free of him, and he will be leaving her a very wealthy woman.
Also attending to Michael is his doctor, Luke Garrett, who seems to have quite a crush on Cora. When Michael makes it clear that he doesn’t want any treatment that will prolong his life, Dr. Garrett is all to happy to comply. With Cora, though, it’s not immediately clear how she feels about Dr. Garrett. She’s fond of him and relies on his company, but more than anything she wants to be an independent woman and considers herself an equal to men – not very common in the Victorian era.
Rounding out the Seaborne household is Cora and Michael’s son Francis, and Martha, the one time nanny who now also acts as a companion to Cora. Francis, or Frankie as his mother calls him, is an odd, quiet child that likes to collect trinkets – a feather, a shell, anything that catches his eye that he finds interesting and wants to study. Martha is devoted to Cora and Francis, but as a very committed Socialist she has some issues with their wealth and privilege.
After Michael’s death, Cora decides that she needs to get away from the home she shared with her cruel and abusive husband. She packs up Frankie and Martha and leaves London, taking up residence in the town of Colchester. It’s there that she happens upon Charles and Katherine Ambrose, old friends who are traveling in the area. From them she learns of the legend of the Essex serpent. It seems there have been some strange occurrences in a nearby town, and the locals believe that the serpent is back and creating these events. Cora is so intrigued, that when Charles Ambrose offers to write an introduction letter to his good friend, the Reverend Will Ransome, Cora at once agrees to travel to Aldwinter to meet the Reverend and his family – with the hope that she’ll get a glimpse of the Essex Serpent.
All seems to go very well for a while; Frankie and Martha have settled in and have made friends with the Ransome family, and Cora delights in the thought that she soon may see this mysterious serpent. But things take an interesting twist as Cora and the Reverend, who have as many things in common as they do differences, become very fast friends – much to the dismay of Dr. Luke Garrett, who is quite jealous; and Martha, who is worried that what’s happening between Cora and Will is quite inappropriate.
While Cora and Will continue their friendship, which entails frequent long walks and copious letter writing, the people of the town are beginning to believe in the curse of the Essex serpent. Children are no longer playing out doors, and the church congregation is growing as people turn to God, and to Will, for comfort in their fear.
Along the way we meet other characters whose lives are entwined with Cora, but the author manages to separate their stories so that there are sub-plots throughout. She does this by adding vignettes to the various sections of the book, which walk you through the passage of time, but always keeps her eye on the ball of the main plot – the serpent. It’s an interesting way to tell a very full story, and it makes the book move along at a very nice pace. This is also used to great advantage in beautifully descriptive passages, such as how the seasons change, how the air smells, and how the fog rolls in. It can go from seemingly so beautiful one minute, then all at once become dark and a bit gothic.
I could go on and on, but I’d be afraid of spoiling this wonderful story – let’s just say that toward the end of the book things start to happen very quickly, and I found myself racing to get to the end. Once I got there, however, I was sad that it was over – I didn’t want the story to end, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters, or to the Essex landscape that was described with such beauty. This is a book that I could see myself re-reading some day – it’s that good!
If you’ve read The Essex Serpent, I’d love to hear your thoughts. As always, please feel free to comment below.