What’s it all about?:
Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.
What did I think?:
If you haven’t heard of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, where on earth have you been?! This gorgeous, one of a kind novel (with equally stunning cover art) has been critically acclaimed and nominated or won a host of awards including being long-listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, nominated for best novel at the Costa Book Awards in 2016, winning the Waterstone’s Book Of The Year in 2016 and the British Book Award for Book Of The Year earlier this year. It was picked as one of the books for the Richard and Judy Summer Book Club recently and although it’s been languishing on my shelves for months now, I’ve finally had an opportunity to pick it up. All I can say is I have no idea why it took me so long! The Essex Serpent deserves all the praise and glory that it has had so far and is truly one of the most beautiful and special books that I’ve had the honour to read.
The scene is set in the 1890’s where a young woman, Cora Seaborne has just become widowed from her controlling, manipulative husband and relatively loveless marriage. Feeling like the entire world has been lifted from her shoulders, she decides to travel to Colchester with her son and good friend, Martha to explore one of her biggest passions – the natural world and fossil hunting. While she is there she meets local vicar, Will Ransome and his wife Stella who she develops a strong friendship with as they discuss science and faith, myths and legends. The village of Aldwinter has become subject to a terrifying prospect in recent times. Unexplained deaths and strange occurrences for the inhabitants of the village are being blamed on the return of a mythical creature, The Essex Serpent who appears to be terrorising the land and the people.
Will and Cora form an intense bond as The Essex Serpent continues to roam the land, Will believing that it’s a lot of superstition and nonsense and as the parish vicar, has the thankless job of trying to reassure and calm his flock. Meanwhile, Cora sees things scientifically and believes it may be the potential return of an ancient creature only previously captured in fossils and is determined to make history by cataloguing its existence. This story is about the relationship between Will and Cora, the differences between hard science and true faith and about love in all the ways that it happens upon us.
I have to admit, this story is a bit of a slow burner to begin with. Please, please stick with it though because by about one hundred pages through I was completely hooked. It’s a study on nature, the environment, superstition and logic and has some of the most beautifully descriptive writing that I’ve ever experienced. It gives you that cosy feeling that’s a rare experience which only happens with a very unique type of book – like you’re warm and cosy under a thick blanket with a cup of hot tea and you’re experiencing the happiest moment of your life. That’s exactly how I felt when reading this book. There are so many secondary characters as well as the wonderful Cora and Will to relish and each one of them was so perfectly drawn that I felt I knew them intimately as friends.
I also loved that there were a number of sub plots and extra things going on that felt equally important and connected to the main narrative like Dr Luke Garrett’s fight to control his feelings for Cora, the excellent passage where he performs open heart surgery for the first time and the wonderful Martha’s determination to improve living conditions for the poor people in Victorian London, parts of which really rang true when we think about conditions for those living in poverty today, horrifically enough! I really can’t gush enough about this extraordinary novel. It’s one that will stay with me for a long time and I feel lucky just to have had the opportunity to read it.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):