Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

First line: A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon.

I wanted to read this book the instant I heard about (shortlist for Baileys Women's Prize, I believe), and my hunger for it was justified because now, a week after finishing, I'm contemplating whether I can reread it before it's due (and if I can justify buying it).

Set in 1893, the novel follows Cora Seaborne, a new widow, who has a voraciously hungry intellect and a naturalist's passions. Freed from her cruel husband, she goes to Essex on a friend's suggestion, where she meets William Ransome, the parish vicar. Expecting him to be brutish or comfortably corpulent, she instead finds a mind like her's, hungry for knowledge -- but where she honors science, he honors faith.

The wild stories of the Essex serpent -- blamed for the deaths of livestock and children -- shape the landscape, the people, their experiences. Cora hopes to find it while Will believes it to be imaginary. The serpent allows them, for good and for bad, to ignore the other things swirling around them -- their feelings for each other, the lives and emotions of their friends and family.

This beautiful, rich novel is reminiscent of Possession and all those luminous, muted British films where much is conveyed with the twitch of the mouth or a half-started gesture. And yet, this isn't a subtle novel -- it's about a sea monster! -- and the emotions Perry depicts are huge and messy and impossible to confuse. Her narrative style is almost decadent in its sensory details, but it isn't florid or overwrought. It evokes the era wonderfully without being pastiche.

If it's not obvious, I loved this book, and it will be one of my top ten reads of the year. What else can I say??

Title: The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 20th Century / Essex / Supernatural / Friendship / Grief / Marriage / Faith vs Science)
Publisher/Publication Date: Custom House (6/6/2017)
Source: My public library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Comments

  1. I've seen this one around but never stopped long enough to read what it was about. You've piqued my interest. Plus, I haven't clicked through in my reader for awhile because your blog has change and it looks fab.

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    1. It's a pretty new design change -- maybe four weeks ago? -- and I'm glad you like it. It's so new I'm not sure I like it yet, but I think it's probably a cleaner, more modern look. So thank you for saying something!

      Let me know what you think if you do get this book -- there are a few things I want to discuss!

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  2. This book is getting serious love. I need to get my hands on a copy.

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    Replies
    1. It's just so beautiful and yet, really accessible.

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  3. I've seen many positive reviews on this one.

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    Replies
    1. I'm obviously biased, but they're all right! ;)

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  4. Yayyyyyyyy I'm glad you liked this! I have it in a big pile of books in the middle of my living room, all acquired when I was in London, and The Essex Serpent is one of the books I was max excited for. And I feel like I've read some less-than-stellar reviews of it around the blogosphere and I don't want to be disappointed. :p

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  5. I'm on hold for this from my library - your review just made me more anxious to get it!! (In a good way, of course.) I've only heard great things about it, so hopefully it lives up to expectations :-)

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