Book Review: ‘The Essex Serpent’

I remember once hearing an interview with a literary agent on NPR, where he discussed regularly receiving manuscripts where the writer made no attempt at hiding the influence Victorian-era authors had on them. This particular agent said he quickly disregards these saying, that in modern publishing there is no market for books like this. Luckily, the Essex Serpent, the American debut for author Sarah Perry never made it to the desk of this particular agent.  With this novel set in 1899; the plotting, characters, and overall mood of this book owe a great deal to an earlier era of authors. This may make it seem as though the novel is akin to the classical literature which alienates many modern readers but that is not the case. Perry’s skill as writer makes something normally seen as stuffy and dated into something captivating, engaging and easily accessible.

When her abusive husband passes away Cora Seaborne gets a new lease on life. Deciding to indulge in her love of science and learning, the widow takes her eccentric son Francis and loyal servant Martha to Essex. An earthquake has recently unearthed a huge deposit of fossils in this region and Cora wants to see what she can find. What she discovers is that the locals fear that the earthquake has awakened a winged serpent who will prey on them, despite the fact that nobody has yet to see this creature. Trying to be a voice of serpentcvrreason in the hysteria brought on by the Essex Serpent is Will Ransome, the local vicar. In short time he and Cora become good friends despite ideologies which are worlds apart and place them into conflict and debate more often than not. We the readers follow these characters over the course of the year 1899 and watch as Cora becomes closer to the vicar and weird events in Essex begin to become more frequent.

Those hoping for a pulse-pounding novel about a giant reptile raining fire and destruction upon a Victorian seaside village will be disappointed, as the Essex Serpent of the title is simply an idea and unseen force for much of the story. Rather the plot unfolds on the backs of our two protagonists Cora and Will as we follow the evolution of their relationship. The love triangle which inevitably forms between them and Will’s ill wife is proves to be so captivating that readers forget that there is the possibility that a flying reptile is looking to bring death and destruction. Even when these two characters are not present they influence the others in this fleshed out and intriguing cast of characters.

Sarah Perry takes full advantage of the setting of this tale, as readers feel themselves immersed in Turn of the Century England. Whether it is the characters of Martha and the doctor know as the Imp navigating London’s alleyways or the woods and marshes around the village of Aldwinter where Cora and Will grow closer to each other. This provides a rich atmosphere and backdrop which draws the readers in and allows them to paint a vivid mental picture.

Given that the Essex Serpent is her debut novel here in the United States I can only hope she has more works on the way. This novel was one I found difficult to put down, it was the classical stylings with a hint of gothic horror which got me to pick it up but it was the drama surrounding these beautifully realized characters which kept me hooked until the end. The Essex Serpent of the title is merely a plot device to keep a certain tension going, in fact it is not even until the end of the book that we found the truth about the monster. Perry’s style of writing owes much to the likes of Mary Shelley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Dickens yet it is still a style uniquely hers which is still easily accessible to modern readers who may not be used to the Victorian writing style.