The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I was late getting around to reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This historical novel came out in paper in 2017, and I just read it a few months ago, during the Stay at Home segment of the pandemic. It was a good book to read during a sequestration, transporting me to a different time and place; Britain in the 1890s.

Perry’s very popular book primarily follows three characters; troubled widow Cora Seaborne, vicar William Ransome and innovative surgeon Luke Garrett. The story of these three and “strange news out of Essex,” of the return of a monster some call the Essex Serpent, also introduces us to fascinating secondary characters; Cora’s young son, William’s wife, and Cora’s social activist companion Martha.

Widowed and now in possession of a comfortable fortune, Cora moves to Essex because of her interest in natural history and fossils. She is a questioner. So is William, but his questions are firmly rooted in a conventional belief in God. They meet socially and Cora becomes friends with William’s charming wife. William and Cora debate and outright bicker over their beliefs, drawing closer, even if that closeness at first is within a life of the mind.

Luke Garrett has loved Cora since before she was widowed. His innovations and confidence in the surgery—and his abrasive personality—are polarizing, yet he is piloting surgical techniques that have amazing results.

Against the backdrop of the “backwater” of the small town where Cora ends up, stories of the serpent, and strange goings-on along the waterline, continue to creep up. The sense of pervasive strangeness Perry creates is palpable. The resolution of the serpent sightings was the least successful thing in the book for me, but I almost didn’t care because of the pages of foreboding and moodiness she provided beforehand.

Two things made the book an outstanding read for me: Perry doesn’t reach for a “standard” resolution to a romantic triangle (two triangles actually) and gives us a woman character who values her autonomy right to the end. Secondly, Cora and Martha are not 21st-century inserts, mouthing values and political positions from our century. They are believable late-19th century women, pushing up against the boundaries of belief and social mores. Martha, from a family of union organizers, comes out of a hallowed British tradition of unionizing, activist women. Cora’s interest in the natural world and the historical riddles left by fossils is in keeping with women of the time and class. The book makes it clear that these women are not prodigies or Queen Bees, the Only Intellectual Woman, etc—they are well established in society.

I wondered how things would go with Francis, Cora’s son, who is clearly on the autism spectrum, and the book treated him well and realistically.

Perry chose a quasi-Victorian style of narration, which fits perfectly.

All in all, a perfect book for long quiet nights, or an evening after a long walk along a beach, or a hike, or looking for fossils.

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One Response to The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

  1. Terry Connelly says:

    I love your critiques! You give us enough information so that we can decide whether or not to read the book.

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