The Essex Serpent
The Essex Serpent was published on May 27th, 2016.
I decided to stop reading this book halfway through for reasons I’ve discussed in my review. If you enjoyed this book, great, I’m so glad it worked for you! I will not be persuaded to finish it, however; my mind has been made up.
An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.
When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.
These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.
What is The Essex Serpent? As fantasy or folklore or magical realism, the book falls flat. At the start, Sarah Perry evokes anticipation through character accounts and events, and sets up a string of characters who all have clear roles in the story. But that anticipation and wondrous appeal of the mystery in the water starts to fizzle out, leaving…what?
Strewn about among chapters and passages that could have been completely left out with no negative consequences to the book (for example: chapter one, which is descriptive without being relevantly informative), is a story about human nature, one about nature itself, a comment on mob mentality and small, secluded village life. What is the Essex serpent if not a scapegoat? A thing against which to rally and fear as a group? A snake-like form bringing evil to the small world [of the village]? Intriguing questions that almost take the place of the fizzled out wonder and mystery, but unfortunately were not explored enough to make a satisfying impact.
Many of the conversations and discourse between our protagonist, Cora Seaborne, and the other characters never seemed to go anywhere, or at the very least move the story anywhere. Each chapter certainly brings some life of their own, but they were a little too all over the place to breathe life into the story as a whole. Plus, the descriptions of landscapes and the environment were sort of forgettable; I don’t deny that they were rich descriptions, but they were often quickly breezed by in favor of what was coming next.
Ultimately, it feels like The Essex Serpent could have been an immersive masterpiece, if Sarah Perry had slowed down a little and taken more time with each character and event. Characters and setting descriptions are thrown in left and right, and would have benefited from careful elaboration to make the story stronger. I do believe that the short letter chapters between the ordinary chapters were effective in both adding to and satisfactorily breaking up the story; now that I think about it, this book would have been interesting to read entirely in letters.