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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent (2016)

by Sarah Perry

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a beautifully written story. So many quirky, yet lovable characters, and such an array of feelings. One moment I almost felt as if I had picked up a volume of poetry, so beautifully written, and the next, darkness looms. This book takes us on a journey through a year in the lives of an assortment of people, whose strengths and weaknesses make them so very real. The unexpected happens often, hearts are broken and lives are mended. And the ending is nothing short of a work of art. The ending can make or break a book, and there is nothing broken in this story of Cora and Martha, Will, Francis, and all of the others whose lives touch, with Cora as the connector of them all. I loved it. ( )
  mckait | Apr 19, 2017 |
A graceful ingeniously written historical fiction set in the 1890s Victorian England that delightfully simmers with suspense, and defying the known sensibilities of the times. The mystery of the reappearance of an elusive beast, a cerebrally-minded young widow, and a compassionate vicar are the drivers that lead the reader into the conversations of science & progress vs superstition & belief. While the beginning was a little slow for me, the intertwined complexities of the relationships made this an addictive read for me. The beautiful cover foreshadows the awesome descriptive language of the landscape, along with the stellar storytelling drawing the reader into the world in which these characters live makes for an entertaining read. ( )
  bookmuse56 | Mar 25, 2017 |
What a wonderful novel! When I began it, I was afraid it was going to turn out to be some kind of fantasy or magical realism--neither of which I enjoy. But this is a novel as driven by character and ideas as by plot, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. Sarah Perry also has a gift for creating an atmosphere that totally draws the reader into a specific time and place--in this case, London and the small Essex town of Aldwinter in the 1890s.

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. ( )
1 vote Cariola | Mar 25, 2017 |
I was initially put off this book by the themes of science and religion, thinking it would be the usual clash between two modes of thought that I have never seen as incompatible. However I am glad I was persuaded to give it a try. The story centres around rumours of a flying serpent living in the marshes, and different people's attitudes to it, as well as the relationships between them. There is no violent clash between differing world views, only mutual respect and conversation. This is historical fiction and suffers rather from putting modern ideals and attitudes in the minds of a previous generation, but that did not spoil my enjoyment. ( )
  eclecticdodo | Mar 23, 2017 |
Set in London and Essex in the 1890s Sarah Perry has drawn on local 17th century accounts of a winged serpent terrifying villages in Essex and imagined what might have happened if locals had started to fear the return of this beast in the 1890s. Has the serpent returned and, if so, has the village done something wrong to justify its return?

It's strange and quirky book - reading it I felt more conscious than I normally am with historical fiction that this was a 21st century novel set in the 19th century but I think that was deliberate on Perry's part. As she said in an interview (in the Guardian) “I really wanted to write a version of the 19th century that, if you blinked, looked a little like ours. I wanted to write a version of the Victorian age that wasn’t a theme park of peasoupers and street urchins. The more I looked, the more I found that not a great deal has changed – an ineffectual parliament, the power of big business and the insecurity around housing. And contemporary Conservatism going back to this idea that morality and poverty are in some way linked.”

There's also an ongoing discussion around science and religion throughout the novel - one of the main characters is a vicar despairing over his congregation resorting to superstition to ward off the serpent and a female fossil-hunter inspired by Mary Anning who thinks the serpent might be a modern day dinosaur.

I feel like I spent 2016 avoiding contemporary literary fiction thinking it would all be quite depressing but although often strange this was in many ways quite an uplifting book as well as being a very interesting one in the parallels it drew between modern society and the 1890s.

I first heard of Sarah Perry when her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book award and although set in a more contemporary period I think that also deals with questions of faith and I think I will check this out from the library. Further on in the interview I linked to above Perry describes how she grew up in a strict church group (although she is no longer a member) and questions of faith are still something she is trying to answer. ( )
1 vote souloftherose | Feb 11, 2017 |
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