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The Essex Serpent Hardcover – 16 Jun 2016
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The Essex Serpent is a novel to relish: a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author (Sarah Waters)
Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel, I wonder if it would have surpassed The Essex Serpent? No way of knowing, but with only her second outing, Sarah Perry establishes herself as one of the finest fiction writers working in Britain today. (John Burnside)
A big, warm, generous novel that wears its considerable wisdom lightly, The Essex Serpent is an absolute pleasure from start to finish - I truly didn't want it to end. (Melissa Harrison)
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry [is] a joyous and beguiling book that wrapped itself around me rather like its eponymous monster. (Cathy Rentzenbrink)
A blissful novel of unapologetic appetites, where desire and faith mingle on the marshes, but friendship is the miracle. Sarah Perry has the rare gift of committing the uncommittable to prose - that is to say: here is a writer who understands life. (Jessie Burton)
A book to make you want to be a better person. (Justine Jordan, The Guardian)
I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvellous novel about the workings of life, love and belief, about science and religion, secrets, mysteries, and the complicated and unexpected shifts of the human heart - and it contains some of the most beautiful evocations of place and landscape I've ever read. It is so good its pages seem lit from within. As soon as I'd finished it I started reading it again. (Helen MacDonald)
A sinuous historical novel by the genius that is Sarah Perry (Lucy Mangan Stylist)
An historical novel with real depth ... Perry writes fantastically, and this deserves attention for the rest of the year. (Steven Cooper The Bookseller)
One day this book will make a fine BBC period drama ... Perry is a wonderful descriptive writer with a remarkable talent for making the familiar strange ... Her accounts of open-heart surgery carried out half a century before antibiotics, or an autistic child questioning the nature of sin, or a soldier's wedding in the phthisic slums of Bethnal Green, snatch the breath in your throat. Perry bleeds light into darkness and back again with a mastery born of her deep professional acquaintance with the gothic tradition. (Oliver Moody Times)
A sumptuously imagined novel of passion, ideas and friendshipSee all Product description
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^^ When Cora Seaborne's cruel husband dies and she finds herself widowed it's, quite frankly, a relief for her. Now she can truly start to discover herself away from his restrictions, and of course of those forced upon her by society just because she is a woman living in Victorian times. With this newfound freedom she begins to enjoy life, with her son and close friend Martha. This takes her from London to a Colchester village where restless locals are shrouded with uneasy stories of a huge sea creature with wings.
^^ Keen to unearth the truth about this Essex Serpent, she meets the locals and finds herself taken by William Ransome, the local vicar, of whom she expected to dislike. Both are intrigued with each other and find a friendship they would not have believed possible, had it not been for The Essex Serpent bringing them together.
^^ Although this took quite a while for me to get into, I realised this is not just a story based on the myth and mayhem of The Essex Serpent, but one of life in the 1800s, family, friendship, and Victorian values. It had me pondering on how the vicar never lost his faith, despite many of his congregation doubting theirs, and how the Essex serpent was to blame for a lot of goings on around them -- whether truth or fiction.
^^ In Cora's case, it's a story of finding herself in a world where society expects certain behaviour from a woman, especially a well-to-do woman that's recently become a widow. I love how she really loosened up, and broke away from society's restrictions to be who she wanted to be, even if it meant looking and acting less ladylike than she should. Her self-discovery was a treat to hear unfold.
^^ Incidentally, I listened to this story, but also bought the paperback, as I loved the beautiful book cover with the sparkling green serpent on the front. Fickle I know, but it's a beautiful keeper.
Overall: Set in Victorian times where the role of a woman was very different to what it is today, this slow starter has so many hidden gems just waiting to unfold. I'd say this is an elegantly written historical fiction tale - shrouded in mystery, Victorian values and family drama.
Once I made the connection, I wondered how I could have missed it, as despite a rather different setting and genre, they share a very distinctive style. I'm glad to report though that my predication was correct - the Essex Serpent was "very good indeed." Most of the positive things about the earlier book had been maintained and built on, and most of the things that had put me off had been remedied. Nonetheless, while the strengths were much stronger and the weaknesses much lessened, there were still definite pros and cons.
The things I really liked - apart from the writing style, which was the real standout - were: the atmospheric sense of time and place, and in particular, the palpable depictions of the changing seasons. The uncertainty as to whether the serpent was a symptom of mass hysteria, something supernatural, or real but explained by science. Most of the insights into Victorian social conditions/surgery/politics etc. Several of the supporting characters. The chilling references to the Cora's (the main character) subtle but sadistic and systematic abuse at the hands of her husband. A handful of standout dramatic moments, and lots of little ones that had a lot of impact.
The things I liked less: the main character, who never seemed as intriguing or attractive as she needed to be, either to explain people's fascination with her, or to fully power such a character driven story. The fact that at least three characters were obsessed with Cora, and several others were fascinated by here - if this were a trashy genre novel, she'd have been derided as a Mary Sue. Cora's probably autistic son - autistic characters seem to have been rather overdone recently, and this wasn't a particularly nuanced portrayal. And ultimately, the way that at the end, I was left feeling that even though it had been an enjoyable journey, not much had really happened, and slightly wondering what the point of it all had been.
Overall though, this is definitely worth a read. Perry's somewhat meandering style works better given the focus of a historical period, an interesting setting and a piece of folklore. I was genuinely very impressed with this and at the same time, enjoyed it. There just wasn't quite enough substance for me to absolutely love it. Incidentally, I'd be fascinated to see the author bring her considerable literary talent to play on a genuinely fantastical plot, David Mitchell-style. I think she'd do a brilliant job and that something a little more story-heavy would balance her flourishes beautifully.
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