The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – An intense read!

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This is an enormous, intense book. Not in terms of length, although it is over four hundred pages long, but in terms of subject matter, themes, ideas and characters. It is not a quick read, as passages need to be savoured and ideas thought through. This is a fascinating and detailed book, with fantastic descriptions of the thin barrier between land and sea, truth and fiction, attraction and the sadness of loss. It is an historical novel with vivid descriptions of not only time and conditions, but of the mind sets of a world full of challenges to the accepted order. This novel deals with courage, questions, love, disturbed minds and bravery.  While sometimes there is a danger of the narrative arc becoming lost within the character’s agendas and the moving descriptions, overall it is a fascinating novel.

The story opens with the death of a character, almost to the relief of his wife, Cora Seabourne. 1893 is a year of discovery and change as people question the beliefs and understandings of decades, when even the natural world seems to be revealing its secrets. In her quest to find freedom and fossils, Cora and her faithful companion Martha encounter a clergyman in Essex, William Ransome. His coastal parish of Aldwinter is beset with fear of a giant serpent which is said to emerge from the sea to kill and devour people and animals. The events of New Year’s Day preface the novel, as a man is killed in mysterious circumstances at the edge of the sea.  The fear is real for those who live in this place where living and dying seems to be dictated by the mysterious and unknown. William’s parish is full of the fearful, and his fixation with a carved serpent in the church comes to dominate his own view. His family is remarkable, with his daughter desperate to further her understanding of the world around her, and his wife Stella becoming obsessed with the colour blue. Meanwhile the doctor that attended Cora’s husband, Luke, is fixated on her and the quest to perform the most seemingly impossible of operations.  His friend and benefactor, Spencer, is influenced into becoming involved in the plight of London’s poor and their appalling treatment by Martha, and he becomes involved in the whole story of Cora’s friendships. The intense relationship between Cora and William defies description as they acknowledge each other’s preoccupations and responsibilities, while the triumphs and tragedies of so many other people rage around them.

There are so many themes and issues within this novel that one read through is insufficient; Perry keeps a hold on the book’s essential ‘strangeness’ only with difficulty. It holds so many issues in tension, such as women’s changing roles, the conflict between faith and fear, the rights of those people who barely exist in London being denied access to good housing. Each character, however incidental to the plot, is well described, so that it can feel a little overwhelming. This book has many great aspects, descriptions and ideas, but it can be a tough read and frequently I needed to check back on characters. There are whole lines of narrative, such as the medical breakthrough in a first operation of its type that almost deserve a novel of themselves.  This is in all senses an amazing book, far more than an historical novel, and definitely worth the effort of reading it. If anything, it has so many ideas that it can sometimes be difficult to read, despite being beautifully written from the standpoint of various characters. I suggest clearing more than a few hours to savour it!

Yes, I know that everyone has already read, reviewed and discussed this book. I have even heard Sarah Perry talk about it twice at various book festivals, so I have got a signed copy (thanks to a friend who climbed onto a stage where she was busy signing them!). It was only last week that our book group actually got round to discussing it. Virtually everyone said that they had read it, but it was universally agreed to be a strange book and a challenging read. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of “Melmoth”, and promise I will read it considerably quicker when I do!


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