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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – Delicious prose that leaves you spellbound

13th November, 2017

Book Review : The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I began reading The Essex Serpent with great caution even though I was spell bound by the stunning cover. I did not want to disappoint myself because of the hype that welcomed this book when it was released. It was when I came across the passage below that I threw away my inhibitions and embraced it in its full beauty –

On her nineteenth birthday, she exchanged birdsong for feathered fans, crickets in the long grass for a jacket dotted with beetle’s wings; she was bound by a whalebone, pierced with ivory, pinned by the hair with tortoiseshell. Her speech grew languid to conceal its stumble; she walked nowhere. He gave her a gold ring which was too small – a year later another, and it was smaller still.”

As I read this passage in the eighteenth page, my lips broke into a smile and I was overcome with the happiness of discovering words that so beautifully convey the scene. I knew this would be a favourite read this year, for when an author describes the transition into adulthood and the loss of innocence in a way as this, you can be assured that she is someone capable of telling a good story without compromising on the quality of her narration. I loved the book, every page, from start to the end.

Book Review : The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

In Brief

The novel follows Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist who was recently widowed. She hears of the  ‘Essex Serpent’ said to be spotted in the estuary of the Blackwater river in the village of Aldwinter. This excites her and she leaves for Aldwinter with her autistic son, with whom she was never able to form a strong bond, and her trusted companion, Martha, who is an advocate of socialistic principles. She meets Will Ransome, the vicar of the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and strikes up an unusual friendship with him. While Cora sees the superstition of the exotic serpent as a fascinating chance to explore the history and science, Will is disturbed by the fear that has encapsulated his parishioners which he sees as a deviation from faith. Over many disagreements, letters and debates, they find themselves drawn to one another.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A sense of place

The 1890s is an exciting time period with mushrooming scientific and medical discoveries speckled with constant challenges at the authenticity of religion. This was also a period where there was a clear distinction between a man’s place in the world and a woman’s. When Perry shows us a vicar who is attached to his faith and family alongside a woman who yearns for scientific knowledge over domestic happiness, we see two individuals with contrasting beliefs who grow comfortable in the differences that separate them.

Book Review : The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

In addition to being gloriously atmospheric with a steady pace, the novel is character driven as well. The readers forms a connection not only with the main characters, but also with the minor characters. I was desperate to make sense of Cora’s son’s world; helpless at the sight of changing tides in Will’s wife’s eyes and found myself agreeing to Mr. Cracknell’s fears. Perry writes for an intelligent reader and she is unapologetic about presenting her characters in the raw human form. She neither judges them nor places them on pedestals, giving the reader a complete freedom to form opinions and silently guiding her reader to follow along rather than be restricted by those opinions. Her characters feel alive and so does her setting – I could feel the mud and the rain as well as the dry approach of winter. In short, I was there; right beside each one of the characters.

I was reminded of the general atmosphere of The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge in some portions, but I was pleased that The Essex Serpent swept me off my feet, which was what The Lie Tree failed to do.

Book Review : The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Delicious prose

As much as I love contemporary novels, I have always seen a lack of spectacular writing styles. Perry’s writing was breath taking with generous taps of lyricism. It felt fresh as well as well rooted in the time and place the novel is set in. I loved how the  change in the mood of the countryside with the onset and departure of seasons  complemented the turmoil and agitation in the minds of characters. The novel ends in the most beautiful way imaginable, for you can conjure up the possibilities that you think would fit the characters.

I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey in January this year and was delighted by the nuances of the prose. The Snow Child is one of my  favourite books this year (Check full list). It is an added delight to read The Essex Serpent towards the end of the year and be relieved that there are new releases as these that have such finesse in writing.

Final Verdict :

Perry is such a talented writer and an excellent story teller. She knows how to string words together in a rhythmic fashion to captivate you in a unique way. She is definitely an author to look out for with a firm footprint and style of her own. Yes, I am mighty impressed with The Essex Serpent. Highly recommended.

Title : The Essex Serpent
Author : Sarah Perry
Publisher : Serpent’s Tail
Publication: 2017
Language : English
Pages : 432
Rating : 5/5

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The Essex Serpent
This Post Has 38 Comments
  1. Oh! This sounds brilliant, Resh. The word ‘serpent’ left me reluctant all this while because of my obvious fear. Now that you say that the writing was extraordinary, maybe I must muster the courage to read the book. Thank you for this lovely post, Resh.

  2. I also adore your photos – and your review! Definitely nudging this a good bit closer to the top of the TBR mountain after reading your beautifully concise and well-constructed thoughts. I’ve almost started this book a couple of times, but some other book always distracted me. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again!

  3. *SPOILER*

    This book had me spellbound BUT FOR that moment when the ace (asexual) friendship between the heroine and pastor crossed a certain line. Really did not care for that scene either as symbolism nor how it did not/did move the plot or subplots.

    I do understand that stuff happens in real life, but I also am desperate to read some ace friendships in literature that are content to stay ace.

    1. I read a review from a friend of mine who thought the same thing, that the events with the pastor and the heroine do not seem to be a possible reality with the way the characters were sculpted till then. That part didn’t affect me, except in the horrifying truth that Will’s wife is still alive. But my friend had talked about the scene and why it dampened her interest. It certainly made me think because I read her views after I had finished the book myself. And now I realize many (including you) might have been put off by the developments between the pastor and the heroine.

  4. This is such a beautiful review – and I’m so in love with the pictures you took here. The book cover is already so gorgeous, I think you made the whole book look even prettier. <3 I really liked this quote you put at the beginning of your review as well, it sounds like such a beautifully written book. I love that it's character-driven, these kind of books are my favorite for sure <3 Thank you for reviewing this and bringing it to my attention! <3

  5. Oh I really loved this one when I read it, and I read “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson in the same period (it has been an inspiration of sorts for one of the characters). Just the Victorian framework with a contemporary sensibilities was such a perfect mix to me. So curious as to what Perry will do next, and I imagine you have been sent an ARC of ” The mermaid and Mrs Hancock”? Because it’s something of the same going on there, this love of that period but without nostalgia, a full recognition of women’s fight for a place, class struggles etc.

    1. I turned down The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock because I thought I didn’t have time to devote to the book. It is a big book too! But now I regret it since many have been loving the book. So maybe I will buy a copy when it is released. Even I noticed that there is a renewed interest to write about women of this era in recent times.

      I am eager about Perry’s next novel too. I believe it is called Melmouth and is out in December

  6. This one is on my TBR because I’ve always had good luck with the Women’s Fiction Prize books (whether winners or longlisters) but I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it all the same, although I’m not exactly rushing in its direction either. I love your photos too, and this time was happily distracted by the idea that the stalk of blooms must be much stronger than it looked to me initially, as it can act like a bookmark and hold the front cover open. How helpful!

    1. I think you would love this book as well. It is atmospheric and beautifully written. I love these blooms. I think they are no longer in season because I have a hard time finding them now.

  7. This sounds like such a beautiful read. If the prose is comparable to that in The Snow Child, then I’m definitely going to have to read it because The Snow Child is one of my favorites as well.

  8. Lovely post and lovely photos.
    I so wish I’d felt the same about this. I loved the prose but it just did not captivate me and then I saw one too many negative reviews and put it aside. I might pick it up again. It might just have been the wrong moment.

  9. A whooping score on your rating scale. The book seems to catch my eye right enough, but I don’t enjoy books which tend to lean too heavily on lyricism. But if the lyricism accentuates the writing style of the author and moves the story forward, it may just happen to weave the most delightful of experience for a reader. Judging by your rating, I think I shall definately want to pick this up soon. Thanks Resh 🙂

  10. This is my current read, and I’m finding it slow-going. Note that slow doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and I am still enjoying it! I am reading it on my breaks at work, which means I only really read it for about a half-hour a day, which might be contributing. I am enjoying seeing a different perspective of Victorian society than we usually read about.

  11. I have only heard wonderful things about this book, but for some reason I just don’t seem to be interested in the story.

    I saw our tweet yesterday. I hope you have a fab time off writing reviews and we’ll be waiting for you to come back 🙂

  12. Ohhh I do want to try this one! I mean it’s not my usual read but THAT COVER. And I also really enjoy character-driven novels, so my motivation to read it isn’t all just shallow cover love. Just…most of it. But the writing sounds so beautiful I’m glad you enjoyed it!!

  13. Oh that you mention The Snow Child in the same breath!! Love love love that novel and you’ve reminded me I have this one on the shelf, a gift I’ve not got around to reading, and a week coming up that I’m going to be able to indulge to a little more reading. Wonderful review!

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