Sarah Perry’s beautifully atmospheric and best-selling work of historic fiction Essex Serpent is a remarkable book, to be enjoyed by many. Part ghost story, part natural history lesson, part romance, and part feminist parable, it truly does have something for everyone. Set in the late 19th century England, Perry encompasses the anxieties of the time in what emerges as not only a great read, but also a study of the evolving attitudes of society at that time.
Following the death of her abusive husband, the newly liberated Cora Seabourne searches for adventure in the unlikeliest of places: a sleepy Essex town. Having abandoned her society life in London after hearing rumours about a sea serpent straight from mythology taking the lives of villagers, splitting houses, and causing boats to disappear, she endeavours to find out more. She meets, and clashes with a priest, William Ransome, who dismisses the serpent as godless superstition. Out of this chance meeting, a friendship blossoms, which Perry will continue to push and pull out of shape, so that every change is unexpected and invigorating.
This unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for a sweeping saga of competing belief systems, as Perry, with an unusual and distinctly voiced style, explores the boundaries between science and superstition as well as friendship and romantic love.
Beneath all this, the undercurrent of the great sea monster itself seems to take the form of something different in every chapter. This ever-present figure is deliciously elusive, and the mystery that hangs on its identity is both enthralling and constantly evolving. Perry’s prose is not only close to poetic in its beauty, but also speaks directly to the senses, in a novel where nature is presented not only as a thing of beauty and reverence, but something that is inherently both dangerous and alive, in a gorgeously engaging way.
The endlessly intriguing protagonists serve to subvert conventional expectations, particularly regarding the views we now have on Victorian society. Full of haunting descriptions, tension, and even several love triangles, this novel really does tick all the boxes.
The prose is easy to follow, but wonderfully dense, and the sumptuous twists and turns are snake-like, resulting in a book that is almost impossible to put down.
Beatrix (Year 12)