I got an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog in Woden. It’s been sitting on my to-read list for a while, and when one of the store assistants asked me what I thought of it last time I was there, I thought I’d better get a wriggle on.
“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry is a historical novel set in Victorian England. Recently widowed Londoner Cora Seabourne finds herself, her son Francis and his governess/her best friend Martha bourne, well, to the sea to continue her mourning in fresher air. Taking up residence in the Essex town of Colchester, Cora’s friends insist on writing her a letter of introduction to meet William Ransome, the vicar of nearby village Aldwinter. An aspiring naturalist, Cora finds herself entranced by the little town’s “Trouble”, rumours of the Essex serpent and the sinister mischief attributed to it. Cora becomes more and more involved in the village and the vicar’s family, forgetting her husband and his doctor, her close acquaintance whom she fondly calls the Imp.
There is no doubt that Perry is a strong writer and her book is rich in research and imagery. She combines elements of Victorian devoutness, its fascination with the macabre, and its yearning for scientific knowledge with great finesse. It’s an original story with Perry’s own style interwoven with classic Victorian language that makes this book feel unique yet familiar. The characters were true to their times, but written in a way that the reader had a more modern insight into their lives, sexualities and abilities. It felt like all the pieces were there for a great novel, but for some reason I just wasn’t hooked. Maybe the gothic undertones of this novel would have suited a bitter winter better than the 30°C days I’ve been having the last week. The chapters just seemed to stretch on, and I longed for the beautifully succinct letters as interludes between them. Maybe the romantic and cryptozoological tension simply just wasn’t enough to carry the story the whole way through. Maybe the characters were just a tad too human to fall in love with.
An interesting and well-written book, if a little meandering for my taste. However, I think someone who was passionate about the Victorian era and historical fiction will probably enjoy this.