Cora Seaborne begins her new life as a widow in the Essex town of Colchester where she hears rumours of the Essex Serpent claiming lives in the parish of Aldwinter. A keen naturalist, Cora is convinced that this mythical being is simply an undiscovered creature, and she moves her, her son, Francis, and her companion, Martha, to set out on its trail. Here, she’s introduced to Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome, and his family. An intense friendship follows and, while they agree on nothing, they find themselves drawn together. This is a rich novel full of interesting characters, an intriguing mystery, and a compelling storyline.
I love this book. The evocation of place and landscape is wonderful. When reading, I can smell the salty air, feel the thick mud of the Blackwater beneath my feet, hear the sounds of the woodland and see the moss growing on the trees. I’ve lived in Essex all my life, so seeing place names I recognise or have visited adds another layer onto the book for me. You definitely don’t have to have visited the area to enjoy this book though, as Perry’s language and writing are completely evoking.
The characters are all well-rounded and feel so effortlessly created. They are vibrant and brim with life. Every time I open the book, I sink into the story and their lives; I’m in the village of Aldwinter feeling the fear of this unknown creature lurking in the depths of the Blackwater, walking down Colchester high street alongside the ruins left behind by the recent earthquake, or rambling with Cora in the countryside. The characters feel like friends, and after finishing the book, I want to read it all over again.
While there’s a rich group of strong characters, both Cora Seaborne and William Ransome are standouts for me. Cora is a great, memorable character. She goes against those typical Victorian woman stereotypes – she wears clothes that have seen better days and stomps around in muddy boots (unapologetically scandalising her society friends who pretend to be appalled, but love her dearly). She’s curious and not afraid to put across her point of view. William is devoted to his God and to his family; he’s quiet and pragmatic, thoughtful and intelligent. I love how the two characters influence and bounce off each other; each making the other interrogate their own feelings and opinions. Their relationship, and their individual characters, highlights how insightful Perry is of human behaviour.
The Essex Serpent isn’t simply a tale about a mysterious creature or Cora and William’s relationship, there are other strands weaved throughout this story. There’s Cora’s friend Luke, a heart doctor in London, fighting to perform revolutionary surgeries that he believes can save lives. Meanwhile, Martha campaigns for social justice for the poor of London, trying to improve housing. None of these strands feel superfluous or under-done – they all draw together to create an enthralling tale.
The Essex Serpent is about love and friendship; science and faith. It’s a compelling and engrossing novel that is full of interesting storylines and characters. It’s one that I can’t recommend enough – it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year.
Have you read The Essex Serpent? What did you think?