The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – Delicious prose that leaves you spellbound
13th November, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Language : English
Pages : 432
Rating : 5/5
Have you read The Essex Serpent yet?