I should preface this review by explaining that I’ve been dipping in and out of a reading challenge for ages now and The Essex Serpent was read to fulfil the category A book a friend recommended. The particular reading challenge can be found here.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book to be honest. My mum (a continual inspiration for good literature) told me about it when it was first released two years ago, but I have to admit that it didn’t appeal at the time. But then it popped up as a 99p e-book and I figured that was a more than fair price for a book that has received such high praise. That, coupled with a one-line review from a friend on Goodreads stating “As near to perfection as you can probably get” (the friend in question’s blog can be found here. ) finally had me sold – and boy, was she not wrong!
This is exactly the kind of book that made me fall in love with novels in the first place; beautiful prose, excellent characterisation, but weirdly…not a lot of plot. To some, this might seem to be a negative point – but not to me! I’ve always enjoyed books that are character-driven, reflective and manage to create believable human beings. The characters in this book are flawed and on a few occasions, unlikable, but that is exactly what makes them so real.
Set in Victorian England we meet our protagonist, Cora; married young, abused and widowed young with her peculiar (autistic) son and companion Martha she sets off to Essex in the wake of her husbands death. In Essex she soon hears tales that a recent earthquake has shaken loose the fabled Essex Serpent – a monster/prehistoric creature/myth that is now terrorising the village of Aldwinter by the Essex Estuary. Having a keen interest in fossils Cora heads to Aldwinter to see if she can discover the beast for herself. There she meets Will and Stella Ransome and their three kids and they all become instant best friends – this might sound ridiculous but Perry pulls it off very well as each party feels a sense of dread and holds preconceptions about the other that are soon proven absurd.
The story quickly becomes centred around the relationships that develop, alter and unfurl between these key characters and a couple of outlying players as well. Notably Dr Luke Garrett; hopelessly in love with Cora from when he met her by her husband’s deathbed. These shifting relationships are all set against the backdrop of tragedy that is consuming the village of Aldwinter, and even stretching further afield – these tragedies are being attributed to the ever-present but never seen Essex Serpent.
Perry manages to achieve a sinister presence throughout the book which just skirts around the genre of horror but never quite goes there fully, I enjoyed this particular tease and sense of menace in the background although from reading other reviews I understand some readers were disappointed that this was never pushed further. I’ve seen the tag ‘gothic-horror’ banded around and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as that, if that is what you are looking for. However, if what you are looking for is excellent writing, reflections of continuing struggles and themes that are as relevant today as they were in the book’s Victorian setting and characters that will make you both love and hate them then I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Perry weaves obvious and less obvious themes throughout the book, for example the conflict between Cora and Will (and they do argue often and animatedly) is a reflection of science vs religion; a struggle that is as relevant in today’s society as it was then, and despite Cora being our main protagonist, Perry never seems to land on either side of the debate and therefore allows for the reader to cast their own judgement on the issues. She also deals with the issues of social housing and equality within a hierarchical society through Martha’s activism.
Overall, this was an excellent book and I’m ultimately glad to have been somewhat arm-twisted into reading it.
Next up in the challenge is A Pulitzer Prize Winning Book and I’ve already started on Less By Andrew Sean Greer.
So until then, have a good one!