If you haven’t seen the hive of activity that continues to swirl around The Essex Serpent, it’s entirely possible you’ve been wandering around the book-filled internet with your eyes closed. The Essex Serpent has been a bookselling phenomenon – from its gorgeous cover to its National Book Award win. I don’t think I’ve seen another book so wonderfully promoted.
But is it any good? That’s a question I see crop up from those who have seen the hype, but are yet to jump on the bandwagon.
Cora Seaborne has just lost her husband. Cold and cruel, his death has a strange effect on Cora, and one that results in her decision to leave London society for the simple countryside of Essex. Along with her son, Francis, and her companion, Martha, she hopes to build a new version of herself from the beautiful country walks and the fascinating discoveries waiting beneath the Essex clay.
When she meets old friends in Colchester, she hears of the Essex Serpent: an almost mythical beast that is said to haunt the Essex saltings and marshes. Instantly intrigued, she’s put in touch with a local vicar, William Ransome.
But Ransome has nothing but contempt for the talk of the serpent. He believes it to be a conjuring of the imagination, one that is starting to pull apart the fragile community he cares for.
With Cora’s spectacular arrival, Ransome is thrown off balance. The simple life he has enjoyed with his wife, Stella, and his three children – as well as his parishioners – begins to fray, all compounded with the dark whisperings of the ominous Essex Serpent.
If their lives are to find any sense of balance and normality, science must meet faith and reason with speculation.
First off, it has to be said that this is a beautifully written book. The prose is lush with dramatic and beautiful descriptions of the landscape of rural Essex. You can almost taste the air as your read through the pages, truly transported to another location and time. It was this, above all else, that carried the book for me.
There is a wonderful sense of shifting atmosphere throughout the novel, too. At times light-hearted and delicate, at times a gothic tale that leaves you a little unsettled in your comfortable chair. As the tensions begin to rise in the village of Aldwinter about the serpent, I could feel both Ransome’s frustration and building concern that perhaps he was wrong – perhaps there is a mythical menace that has been sent as punishment against the people.
The characters are well-drawn. They are a mismatched group, none of them quite fitting into the station they find themselves in. Cora is clearly a woman ahead of her time, more interested in scientific discovery than gossip and household duties. Will Ransome is a bulky, country man who barely fits his cassock, despite his unshakeable faith. Stella should be the society lady. Martha is the stalwart socialist pursued by the incredibly wealthy Sanders. Dr Luke Garrett – madly in love with Cora – is a man who pushes the boundaries of medical science to breaking point. Francis, Cora’s son, seems otherworldly in his view of the world and the people in it – observing, detached, and far more interested in his collection of treasures. They are an interesting group of people, and their interactions are complex and believable.
And yet, I found that I didn’t care deeply for any of them. The novel is a good length – long enough to be greatly attached to them – but I found myself, at one crucial point, left a little cold. They were cleverly created in their complexity, and yet I feel that detachment and coolness that comes with the scientific side so praised within Perry’s novel.
Will Ransome was by far the most intriguing character, and yet his preoccupation with Cora (and the details of the lives of others I cared less about) meant that he was not explored as a character as much as I would have liked. Perhaps I simply have a strange fascination with the intricacies of faith and religion, but I felt more could have been done there.
I also was left a little lost as to the exact relevance of Martha and her fight for the improving of housing conditions in London. I accept that this was a very important time, and historically very significant. But in relation to the rest of the novel – where I felt a number of areas were underdeveloped – the choice to include this seemed incongruous. With such delicious tension against the serpent, the growing relationship between Cora and Will, Stella’s decline, all of the discussions of socialism and the improvements for impoverished London felt odd and detracted from what could be a novel of great tension and power.
My final point as to why this novel isn’t quite full marks from me, is the ending. Don’t worry! No spoilers. But I would say, simply, that the resolution to Cora’s story fell flat for me. I think, perhaps, that her character progression didn’t really go anywhere. Her greatest achievement as a woman who was in an abusive relationship for so long seemed to occur in the first third, to the middle of the book. Everything after that is almost a step backwards for her. I accept the open-endedness of the novel, that’s perfectly legitimate. But I was definitely a little disappointed by Cora’s final decisions.
All that being said, it is still a beautiful book, and there is some stunning prose that I want to revisit again and make a note of.
Have you managed to pick up a copy? Or are you just not that bothered? Let me know down below!