The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Rating: ★★★★☆

A strange beast stalks the Blackwater Estuary.  Rumoured to be some kind of winged serpent, there have been strange disappearances, and people no longer allow their children to roam as freely as they once did.  The villagers of Aldwinter are on tenterhooks, terrified of being the next to cross its path.

Into this environment strays the newly widowed Cora.  Tall and stout, she is striking rather than beautiful, with a strong mind and even stronger constitution; more comfortable in men’s boots and jackets than she is in skirts and silks.  Everyone who meets her falls for her unintentional charm, none less so than the vicar and his family.  Cora – a naturalist – is determined to discover the truth behind the serpent, and believes (hopes) that it may be a ‘living fossil’, and sees this as her opportunity to become immortalised through a plaque in the British Museum for discovering it.

Throughout the novel, I was struck by the juxtaposition of faith and science.  The Essex Serpent is set in the 1890s – a time when new discoveries and developments were being made in all aspects of science and medicine.  Darwin’s work on evolution is beginning to pass muster, and Cora herself is a naturalist, and not at all devout.  This is directly contrasted with the mythical, mystical existence of the serpent, which many of the inhabitants of Aldwinter believe to be a punishment sent by God for some transgression or other.

This contrast is further enhanced by the competition between Dr Luke Garrett and Will Ransome, who are both fond of Cora.  Garrett is an exceptional doctor, pushing the boundaries of medical science through both skill and a certain willingness to take risks.  When a strange vision grips some of the children of Aldwinter, he is quick to diagnose it as ergotism when many consider it to be further evidence of the mystical goings-on.

Will Ransome, on the other hand, is vicar to the village of Aldwinter, although he doesn’t come across as being a stereotypical man of the cloth.  Deeply intelligent, with a rugged charm, he seems equally at home discussing farming and nature as he does matters of the spirit.  He seems comfortable with his chosen path, although it’s clear that many think that he could have amounted to so much more than a vicar in a small Essex village.  He is, a little surprisingly, very much in favour of a natural (rather than spiritual) explanation for the beast, although he welcomes the improved attendance at his Sunday services, caused by the rumours of the beast and the belief that they need to atone for something.

I loved the strong female characters in the novel, particularly given that we’re often led to believe that women of the time were meek and dominated by the men in their lives.  And it’s not just Cora.  Martha, who was initially hired as Cora’s maid, but has since become more of a friend, is a strong-minded socialist, and is determined to see better living conditions for those who are living in squalor and paying rents significantly over the odds for the privilege.  Even Stella – Will’s wife – who is physically small and waif-like, has a strong will and demands equal rights to her male counterparts.

Because of these strong characters, I found the tone to be at times a little tongue in cheek, particularly in instances such as the description of Cora that is sent to Will Ransome by way of introduction from a mutual (male) acquaintance of theirs:

I think of her as having an exceptional – really I might even say masculine! – intelligence

It made me wonder whether the view that we have of women at the time – that they are

forever succumbing to fits of vapours

as Perry so aptly puts it – is because so much of what was written at the time came from men with views such as the one above.

The Essex Serpent is an incredibly detailed novel, and for this reason I did find it a little slow to start.  I was soon completely enthralled, however, and desperate to know the outcome – not just the explanation behind the serpent, but also to understand the outcome for each of the characters involved.  I’m going to make an early call and say that this will appear on this year’s Man Booker Prize long list.

The Essex Serpent will be published in the UK on 16 June 2016.  Many thanks to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for sending a copy for review.

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