It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen. It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites. The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times. I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty. I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.
So let’s start with the easy bit! Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis. This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive. His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself. On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community. Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times. Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster. A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant. Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science. From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.
So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart? There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one. Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers. Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players. Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone? Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation. The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that. Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction. And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet? I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.
So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic? I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here. On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers. Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes. And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it? By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences. For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease. Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.
There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards. I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time! I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading!