This is another of those books that’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but news of an upcoming adaption made me finally pick it up. I didn’t expect to love The Essex Serpent. I bought it at a library sale because the cover is stunning, but it sounded more than a bit slow, and I’m not a huge reader of historical fiction. However, when Tom Hiddleston was cast as one of the leads in the television series, I knew I had to finally dust it off and read it. I’m so incredibly thankful that I did, because this novel was gorgeous. I was incredibly surprised by how much I ended up loving it.
“If love were an archer someone had put out its eyes, and it went stumbling about, blindly letting loose its arrows, never meeting its mark.”
First off, I have to talk about Perry’s writing style. The prose is dense but lovely, Dickensian in both thoughtfulness and verbosity. It might be wordy, but each of those words matters. Her voice is somehow a fascinating dichotomy of powerful and subtle; powerful in that it’s clear and consistent throughout, and subtle in that it quietly takes a backseat to the narrative and never overwhelms it. Perry does a very good job of showing what characters are thinking and feeling through their own actions instead of simply telling us what emotions are currently ruling them, which I very much appreciated. She also has a deft touch with her descriptions. They’re beautiful and evokative without ever bogging down the reader and dragging them from the story. I have to confess that at least a star of my rating is strictly owing to the awe the writing itself inspired within me.
“Not even knowledge takes all the strangeness from the world.”
Let me set the scene. London, 1893. Cora Seaborne finds herself suddenly free in a way most women of her time and place never experience. She’s a young, wealthy widow with a sharp, scientific mind and the means by which to travel in search of the ancient but undiscovered. When she hears tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious and rarely-sighted creature potentially roaming the backwater marshes, she is drawn to the area in hopes of proving the mystical actually prehistoric. Here she meets William Ransome, the parish parson, and they strike up an unlikely friendship. From here, their lives, and the lives of those they love, will change unerringly and irrevocably.
“…you cannot always keep yourself away from things that hurt you. We all wish we could, but we cannot: to live at all is to be bruised.”
The writing is, as I already stated, exquisite, and the proposed tale is an interesting one. But then there are the characters, and this cast is where I believe the true magic of the story lies. Cora is a radically uncommon woman, portrayed as almost masculine in her mannerisms and intellect. She has a strained relationship with her young son, Francis, who would likely be on the autism spectrum today. Martha, Francis’s nanny, is brusk and canny in her own right, and is fiercely loyal and protective of her mistress. Dr. Luke Garrett, the physician who attended Cora’s husband until death, strikes up an easy friendship with Cora and swiftly falls in love with her. Stella Ransome, the parson’s wife, immediately takes to Cora when she comes to their village. Stella is beautiful and kind and fragile, and it’s impossible not to love her. Then there’s William Ransome, the aforementioned parson who finds instant, almost unwanted rapport with Cora despite their profound differences. You see, Cora is sure that there is truly a creature in the marsh, while Will refuses to even acknowledge it, calling the superstition plaguing his parish The Trouble instead. And there are even more characters who, though not what I could consider main characters, are wonderfully fleshed out. I was so impressed by the dimensionality with which Perry was able imbue such an extensive cast.
“I think it possible to put flesh on the bones of our terrors, most of all when we have turned our back on God.”
While the mystery of the Serpent is of course at the forefront of the story and the minds of its characters, I felt that the true theme of the novel was friendship, the different forms it can take and the ways in which it changes. My favorite friendship in the novel was that between Cora and Will, which was the most central to the story. These two have such opposing views on so many aspects of life, and yet they were almost instant bosom friends, to take a term from Anne of Green Gables. Their relationship brought to the narrative the age old question of how well religion can co-exist with science, as well as why they are so often seemingly at odds. This is a topic that has always endlessly fascinated me, and I thought Perry utilized her characters to present a very well balanced argument for both sides, without ever using them as mouthpieces to push her own views. I have the utmost respect for how she was able to let her characters have their own points of view without forcing them to present her own.
“We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.”
I had feared that this novel would be slow, and I wasn’t wrong. But I didn’t mind that in the least. It felt true to life, full of small, quiet dramas that build to larger dramas until quieting down once again. Whether these were individual, medical dramas, interrelational friendship dramas, or the more village-wide dramas of mass superstition boiling to a head, Perry handled all of these in ways that felt organic and realistic. The intersectionality of these dramas, how they all tied into one another while still being very much their own issues, also felt true. This novel gave me so much food for thought in so many ways, and I know I’ll be thinking on it for months to come.
“It was necessary to be afraid in order to have courage.”
The Essex Serpent is literary fiction of the highest order. What I mean is that the writing is not only beautiful, but is also beautifully wielded to paint a masterpiece of a story, which would never have worked without prose of this caliber. What could have been boring or plodding instead ended up being enchanting and transporting and purposefully meandering. I have the utmost respect for this novel and its author, and am very thankful for the lovely cover that convinced me to pick up a story I thought for sure wouldn’t hold my interest. It’s one of the rare instants where I love being proven wrong.
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