One of our titles for May book club, I have wanted to get round to The Essex Serpent for an embarrassingly long time. Waterstones Book of the Year, Overall Book of the Year and Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction… I could go on with its various accolades but let’s just say it’s one of the most critically acclaimed books of the moment. Personally, I would love to say I bought it based on its literary merit, but it is also just a darned beautiful cover (especially the Waterstones exclusive blue edition) and to be honest, I wanted it on my shelf for the pretties. In this review, I will share my opinions of the book, as well as what the group thought and some of the discussions we had while reading it.
The novel opens towards the end of the 19th century as newly-widowed Cora Seaborne leaves London behind her to move to Colchester with her 11-year-old son, Francis. A keen amateur naturalist, she soon hears tell of a mysterious, winged serpent stalking the Blackwater Estuary, wreaking havoc and driving the local population to hysteria. Although unconvinced of the mythical quality of the beast, Cora is excited by the prospect of potentially discovering a new species. Will, pastor of the nearby parish of Aldwinter, despairs of the irrational agitation of his parishioners. When the two meet, they become firm, if unlikely, friends. Their relationship plays out against the rich backdrop of late Victorian society, in which modernity (with its innovative medical advances, scientific discoveries and socialism) vies with a still-lingering antiquity (the belief in creationism, superstition and a fascination with the supernatural).
After a false start back in December where I started the book and read a single chapter before moving onto pastures new (happens to the best of us, guys), I was determined to persevere this time and found myself drawn in by some quite beautiful writing and interesting characters. No stuck-up, twittering Victorian socialites in this novel; no moustachioed, braying gentlemen puffing on cigars. These are rounded, individual characters, many of whom don’t quite fit with traditional society. Cora likes nothing more than to walk in the countryside with no mind paid to her mud-spattered appearance or her general lack of corset; Luke, a maverick London surgeon who has been in love with Cora since treating her late husband, is surly, taciturn and somewhat lacking in social skills. Representation is also quite varied in this novel, which I found very refreshing – especially in a historical novel set in Victorian England. Although not referred to specifically as such, it is clear that Cora’s son Francis is on the autistic spectrum, while her friend and maid Martha is either a lesbian or bisexual who campaigns at the forefront of the late Victorian socialist movement.
The group as a whole agreed that the characterisation was one of the novel’s strongest points; we discussed how Francis was simply accepted as “odd” or “eccentric” in the novel because of his class, and wondered how differently he would have been treated were he a working class boy. Following on from her wide variety of representative and very individual characters, Sarah Perry was clearly also interested in exploring a large range of social issues to truly capture the breadth and complexity of Victorian society. We had the tug of war between modern science and a religion deemed increasingly archaic (and yet Will was not a conservative, traditional pastor firmly entrenched in scripture, but an intelligent, logical man struggling to reconcile two apparently opposing concepts); new medical and surgical discoveries; the turn-of-the-century socialist movement (particularly focusing on poverty and housing in London; the contemporary obsession with superstition, mesmerism and the supernatural; and many other little elements that gave the reader an overview of contemporary society. The only thing I would say is that The Essex Serpent was a relatively short book to be trying to encompass so much. Several plot points were (I felt) cut short or not explored to the extent they deserved to be. For example, there was an episode of mass hysteria at the village school where all the little girls had a rather creepy giggling fit. There was a vague attempt on the part of Luke (the surgeon) to get to the bottom of it by hypnotising Joanna, Will’s daughter, who witnessed the event. After that, however, it was never mentioned again. I also felt that, while Sarah Perry’s intention was clearly to weave a tapestry of what contemporary society looked and felt like, the elements and storylines were too disparate and didn’t quite knit together for me – it could have flowed much better. I occasionally felt jolted out of my enjoyment of the book by the need to adapt and remember what was going on in a different part of the story. It needed to be a much longer book to explore everything that she wanted to in its entirety.
For the most part, the book group enjoyed the way the book was written. It was very descriptive, with a rather unusual turn of phrase that took a bit of getting used to. I think it was this, more than anything else, that made me put the book down initially as I didn’t give myself enough time to settle into it. The only thing that we agreed as a group is that the book’s descriptiveness led to a noticeable slowdown in pace. I particularly felt that many of the passages describing the Essex landscape were overlong and slightly self-indulgent, an attempt by the author to say “Hey, look at my superior, prize-winning creative writing! Isn’t it great!” On the other hand, the writing did give the book a unique spin and it felt very different to other historical novels I’ve read, which is, I suppose, what you want in a prize-winner! We also enjoyed the way that the novel was interspersed with letters between the characters, lending the book further realism and allowing the characters a first-person voice outside of the third-person narrative.
Overall, this was a very solid, enjoyable historical novel that was clearly very well-researched, and written in a unique style with a lovely turn of phrase. Its stunning cover, and the myriad reviews, accolades and nominations that accompany it, give it a lot of hype to live up to and personally I’m not sure it quite managed it. It was slightly too slow-paced for me, prone to flights of fancy and overlong descriptions when the space would have been better dedicated to strengthening some of the gaps in the plot. However, the characterisation, the friendships and the relationships (basically, the people part of the novel) were the novel’s biggest strengths and I found myself rooting for each character and becoming invested in their decisions and relationships. The ending, although bittersweet, was not predictable and was the right ending for the book. Would I peg it as a prize winner? Maybe… most likely not. Should you read it? Yeah… definitely put it on your list.
Star Rating: 4/5