"Costa Book Award Finalist and the Waterstones (UK) Book of the Year 2016." "I loved this book. At once numinous, intimate and wise, The Essex Serpent is a marvelous 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, author of H is for Hawk. An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love. When Cora Seaborne's brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy's nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year's Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart--an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected. Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible. you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian seance. This is the best new novel I've read in years" (Daily Telegraph, London)"--
That said, the characters were instantly intriguing. Cora, freed from an abusive marriage by her husband's death, takes her son and companion to Essex in the pursuit of scientific enlightenment. There she meets friends of friends, Will and Stella Ransome, who become her friends too. They live in a remote village where a 17th century sea serpent is rumored to have reappeared. Cora is convinced that it is a living fossil; Will, the local vicar, is convinced that it is simply superstitious Trouble. Mix in Cora's Marxist companion Martha, who is loved by the very wealthy Spencer, friend of brilliant surgeon Luke, who is in love with Cora - not to mention the Ambroses (those friends of both Cora and the Ransomes) and the four children plus a neighbor's child plus a couple of old men, and you have a stew that is fun to consume but somehow leaves the reader unfilled in the end.
I did like it. I liked Perry's writing in general and admired some of her set pieces. I just wish somehow that it had been more.
The Essex Serpent is impressive, entrancing and atmospheric, full of fascinating, interesting and well drawn characters. I particularly love Cora, she has quite a sense of humour. It is very much a character driven tale. It is beautifully written and extremely evocative of the era. The descriptions are so vivid that I almost felt I was there! The story deals with a variety of themes from science to religion to politics and to love in all its guises.
An engaging, captivating and absorbing read, which I enjoyed tremendously. I can highly recommend it, especially to historical fiction fans. This is the first book I have read by Sarah Perry and it won't be the last.
Many thanks to Lovereading.co.uk for giving me the opportunity to read and review The Essex Serpent, which will be published on 2 June 2016.
Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, seems to have ambivalent feelings about her deceased husband, a wealthy, powerful, but cruel man. In some ways, he shaped her into a new person and a new life; but he also stifled any sense of self that she might have developed. Now on her own, she decides to follow her whims, the primary one being to study paleontology on an amateur level. With her companion Martha, an early feminist with reformist tendencies, and her odd 12-year old son Frankie (who today would likely be considered mildly autistic), Cora packs off to Lyme Regis, where Mary Anning had set off a craze for fossil hunting. But when rumors surface that a strange sea creature, last seen in 1669, may have reappeared in the waters near the small town of Aldwinter, Cora can't resist the opportunity to find something truly remarkable. Her friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose, wealthy aristocrats, provide an introduction to the local parson, Will Ransome, a married father of three with a similar interest in fossils. Will and Cora embark on an unexpected and passionate friendship that threatens to become much more. Their debates on the conflicts between science and faith shape the heart of the novel.
But this is not the only theme running through The Essex Serpent. There are questions about the nature of love in its many forms: friendship, passion, loyalty, empathy, responsibility, parenthood, and more. These are fleshed out through a series of wonderfully drawn secondary characters: Will's wife Stella, an ethereal creature whose illness pulls her into a strange faith of her own making that centers on all things blue; Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon in love with Cora; his devoted friend George Spencer, a wealthy young physician who spends his fortune on charitable projects to impress Cora's companion Martha; Frankie, who seems incapable of loving anyone; and the quirky townsfolk of Aldwinter. Questions of class are never far from the surface; Charles Ambrose, for example, believes in a kind of simplified social Darwinism that keeps individuals in the places they are meant to be.
All these elements, characters, and ideas twist and turn and intertwine like the body of the elusive serpent while the plot carries the reader along for the ride. There's nary a dull moment here, and a good number of keen insights and startlingly beautiful passages. The Essex Serpent is an all-around winner, the best reading experience I've had so far this year.
The fear is brought to life with the discovery of a drowned man, naked with his head rotated almost 180 degrees and a look of terror in his eyes. One man who sees the parish crumbling in their faith is the vicar, Will Ransome, they start to resort to pagan superstitions and pure cold fear of what may lurk in the waters. Cora arriving in his parish adds to his challenges as she declares that science offers as many explanations as religion does to their present threat. Their relationship sparks fierce debate and unspoken attraction, but Cora has another that is besotted by her, Luke Garrett, a surgeon of some note, who affection is not returned. Will they be able to understand what lurks in the Blackwater, and will they resolve the relationship to something more amiable?
Perry has set the story in a time where society is undergoing huge social changes and scientific understanding is growing and challenging the status quo of the state. There is a lot to like about this, the story is richly imagined, full of detail and with a gothic sub note all the way through, the strained relationship between Cora and William adds greatly to the story too. However, I did feel that there were too many characters in the story as it flipped back and forward between London and Essex. The plot had a little too much going on as well, but the various sub plots did add the necessary depth. Glad I have read it and would suit those that like Victorian dramas.
According to GoodReads, this book has been nominated for eight awards to date, but I'm afraid I found it rather slow and it failed to hold my interest. On several occasions I had to rewind the audiobook as I had lost my train of thought, which left me wondering if this might be a book that is better read than listened to.
The central character is Cora Seaborne, who is narrated with a most peculiar accent. As the story begins, she is widowed by her overbearing older husband, but left well provided for. She had done her duty as a wife but felt relieved to be free of him. Able to do as she pleased, she dropped all female pretenses and moved to Aldwinter, Essex, where a serpent was rumoured to have been seen in the dark marsh waters. Cora is fascinated by nature, and by fossils in particular; she hopes the serpent will turn out to be a living fossil.
In Aldwinter she is drawn to the local vicar, Will Ransome, with whom she spars about many topics, including the relevance of religion.
Set in the 1890's, this novel also includes references to social housing and surgical breakthroughs, but these elements felt a bit superfluous and incomplete.
Many secondary characters play a part and of these I was most drawn to the poor doctor who attended Cora's husband and who fell hook-line-and-sinker for Cora, and to Francis, Cora's (probably autistic) son, who spent hours counting the feathers in a pillow, both forwards and backwards.
I have to say, the cover art is divine, five stars to the artist who designed it.
THE ESSEX SERPENT is the story, loosely, of newly widowed Cora Seaborne, an unconventional Victorian woman who is fascinated by natural history and the budding sciences of the late 19th century. After the death of her abusive husband, this passion takes her to the marshy county of Essex where rumors of a monstrous serpent are circulating along the estuary towns. Here she meets the married reverend William Ransome, and they begin a relationship every bit as unconventional as Cora herself.
I really wanted to love this book and was so excited to get my hands on a copy, but after reading it, felt a little let down. THE ESSEX SERPENT is less a supernatural story about Cora and her adventures to find the Essex serpent, and more an atmospheric snapshot of a time and place. It's beautifully written, but the characters feel underdeveloped, and the multiple side-plots extraneous to the central narrative. It seemed like a book that wanted to be a little of everything, without really knowing what it was. It's frustrating because you felt like with every turn of the page it had the potential to be something really special, but it just never got there.
In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.
The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.
The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters - even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.
Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And - this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such - I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”
A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.
While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.
I do give Sarah Perry credit for being original. The Essex Serpent is like none of the other neo-Victorian books I've read. It’s an original. That may speak well of Perry’s talent as a writer, but it didn’t do much for me as a reader.
The first problem I found is that it takes a ridiculously long time to get started. Well over 100 pages. There are lots of characters beyond Cora Seaborne, the recently widowed fossil collector, and William Ransome, the country vicar with a big family and devoted wife, Stella. There’s a pair of doctors, Luke Garrett and George Spencer. And then there’s Charles and Katherine Ambrose, a good-hearted couple who bring the characters together. And then there are various children, most notably Cora’s son Francis, who appears to be autistic, and the Ransomes’ clever daughter, Joanna. And Cora has a companion, Martha, who appears to be in love with her. After Cora’s abusive husband dies, the first hundred pages of the book are mostly the various characters making introductions and eventually meeting. In every case, the characters form ideas of who they will meet, and they are invariably surprised. It gets tedious.
What the book does not show is Cora actually doing much investigating. Instead, it focuses on atmosphere, most notably the hothouse environment of a small community where everything seems uncertain and no one knows what to do about it. Perhaps if I’d known it was more about atmosphere than story, I would have been more patient with the slow (agonizingly slow) burn. As it is, I felt like most of the interesting material was barely touched on when a plot that appears to go nowhere gets all the attention.
The book does get better as it goes on. Passions can’t be denied, and there are consequences to face. By the last third, I was keen to see how it would turn out. But that didn’t quite make up for hundreds of pages of waiting for something to happen.
The Gothic elements here are primarily in the Victorian, rural/estuary Essex setting, and in the conflict and play between Science and Superstition.
The characters from the city are all doctors or scientists or otherwise "modern", basically the type to eschew superstition, including the central character Cora, who aspires to be a natural scientist and likes to collect rocks and fossils. Her companion Ruth is a socialist bent on fixing the city's housing problem for the impoverished, her son Francis is likely on the autistic spectrum and appears to distrust emotion and certainly doesn't display any himself, and her dear friend Luke is a brilliant surgeon who takes on cutting edge techniques and cases.
When Cora's husband dies, she takes her son and Ruth to Essex to spend time in nature and maybe discover some rare fossils. Here, especially in the small country, seaside village of Aldwinter, are the representatives of Superstition. Vicar Will is a direct contrast to Luke - equally brilliant in school, but choosing to dedicate himself to religion in a backwater town. His wife Stella is (superficially) a delicate, flighty person, wholly unlike Ruth, and their eldest child Joanna first appears when she is attempting to cast a magic spell to hurry spring with her best friend and brother. Essex is the site of ruins from an earthquake many years before, and in Aldwinter especially there are rumors of a monster, some kind of sea serpent, that is threatening the village.
So and thus, London and its people are modernity and science. Essex and the people there are the past and superstition. The two mingle, not just because of Cora. The science goes to Essex and muddles things up, the irrationality of the country finds its way to the city. The story finds a happy medium, of sorts, as it examines the flaws of the two perspectives, and the rightness of each as well. Each character moves towards that middle by the end.
I enjoyed the process of the story and the evocative imagery. It is fairly vividly late Victorian, which was enjoyable to read (though I wondered about the lack of servants anywhere!). I appreciated that even as steeped as it is in the 19th century thought and what was known of the world, nods are given to modern sensibilities - one character is quietly queer, mass hysteria is shown from a recent perspective, but also many of the medical or science things we now know are bunk are treated that way.
The themes ended up feeling uneven and superficial. I couldn't really figure out what the author was trying to say, and ultimately felt that finding a middle balance was a weak way to do it, especially with the book being so Gothic. I wanted more conviction and more strongly Good/Bad character dichotomies. (Which I admit I did like the way everyone is cast in grey...that's just not what I want from this kind of book.) Every main character has their plot tied up to show them finding a new middle ground and how they're growing as people, but none of that felt much like an ending. It's almost like the book just fizzled out, or ran out of things to say, or something. The resolution of Cora's love story plot, too, was frustratingly middle-of-the-road, when I wanted it to have a stronger statement. Though, again, I do appreciate the shades-of-grey/real-people-are-like-this elements of it.
I think I also am bristling against the treatment of Science vs. Superstition (or Religion or Emotion or whatever) that ultimately organizes the plot threads. It's almost a feeling of Modernity being framed as less good than the wholesome religion and country living - even though the whole book is about how people need the logic and steadiness to counter runaway base emotions and thoughtlessness. (But also, life isn't living without emotion. It was kind of annoying that the apparently autistic child's happy ending is when he shows affection for his mother.)
So, to sum up, I like the idea of this book, and enjoyed reading it, but I did not like the thematic conclusions it makes and wish that it had taken a more vocal stance about them, without being so middle-of-the-road. I wish it were more like those Sensational novels of the 19th century, with a clear Good/Bad character division, and not so much of a downplaying of modernity and science in order to create that balance.
For a story so concerned with pain - physical, emotional and all pains remembered - it's enjoyable, and satisfying. Maybe because it's also about surviving and carrying on? Recommended.
Cora has some well placed friends, especially Luke Garrett, an ambitious surgeon who was her husband's doctor and who is secretly in love with her. The Ambroses are also friends, Charles and Katherine; people of wealth and influence, Charles is a politician who is likeable and attempts to do right without really making much of an effort. In Essex, Cora is introduced to Rev. William Ransome, the local vicar and his pleasant but ill wife, Stella and their children. Rev. Ransome doesn't believe any of the stories about a sea monster and attempts to lead his congregation towards reason. Cora, on the other hand, believes most religions to be superstitions, yet believes there really could be a monster.
It is the relationship between Cora and Rev. Ransome that take up most of the book. Their differing views of the world collide but also provide them with a mutual interest in each other.
I loved the beginning of the book, but somehow it seems to lost some of its draw with more unusual characters and occurrences in Essex.
But then, and I had a feeling this would happen, I clicked with a character ('Isn't it odd how strangers come over the threshold and you never know what they might become') - Luke Garrett, the talented but taciturn surgeon (who of course has a crush on Cora, gag). I imagined him to sort of look like David Bamber as Mr Collins in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, which isn't exactly heart throb material, but he also has that underdog vibe that I love, like Childermass in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I was nearly in tears when *improbable event* struck him down, and then Cora very nearly literally twisted the knife.
I think characterisation saves this novel from abject boredom. Apart from Cora and the slappable vicar, the personalities are all believable and mostly sympathetic, with my favourites being Luke, his hapless mate Spencer, and Stella, the vicar's wife. And even Cora is a strong, if forced, heroine who stays true to her beliefs - no sickening happy ever after at least.
I received an advanced copy of this novel from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. Thanks!