Book review: The Essex Serpent

The writing in some novels is like candy floss: light, delicate and easy to enjoy. But this gets sickly, fast, and often leaves you hungry just moments later. Some novels are like honey on toast. Comforting, soothing and able to cure all ills. And a rare few read like the taste of a Michelin-starred meal. Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is one of those rare finds.

The plot is a heady combination of science vs religion, the power of friendship and the hunt for a lurking, sinister evil. And while I enjoyed the narrative, it’s the language that makes this special. It’s thick, rich and entirely opulent. It feels like wading through treacle, in the best way. You can’t help but wonder at the arrogance of the rolling sentences and flurry of punctuation. Out of this language rises a sharp wit: I hadn’t expected humour in The Essex Serpent, but found myself laughing along (when not fighting a lump in my throat). Sarah Perry’s observant eye and dry humour clearly matches my own.

“I shan’t. Joanna gave her permission. Stella, too. Or must we all bide our time until a man provides written consent?”

The Essex Serpent is – without a doubt – a Victorian novel written in the modern day. Its language and structure bears an uncanny resemblance to the novels of Dickens and Austen. There’s a hint of Mary Shelley’s gothic, twisted influence too. This heavy language and classic writing style may put some readers off the book; it entirely depends on what writing you like. I found this book hard to put down: not just because I was SO invested in the characters or because I HAD to know who or what the legendary serpent was. But because of the effort it takes to read. My mind had to be 100% in the book to roll with the language.

The characters in The Essex Serpent are all brilliant, terrible people. All have questionable morality – from Cora’s supposed cruelty to Will’s adultery to Luke’s scientific single-mindedness. However, it’s this humanity that makes you like them. Perry shows their faults clear as day, yet you still warm to them and want the best for them.

“Cora, you cannot always keep yourself away from things that hurt you. we all wish we could, but we cannot: to live is to be bruised. … You told me once you forget you are a woman, and i understand it now – you think to be a woman is to be weak – you think ours is a sisterhood of suffering! Perhaps so, but doesn’t it take greater strength to walk a mile in pain than seven miles in none? You are a woman, and must begin to live like one. By which I mean: have courage.”

Cora was by far my favourite. Her sharp mind, innate curiosity and headstrong nature made me warm to her immediately. She constantly questions herself – where she sits on the masculine/feminine divide; whether she’s right to pursue science or stick with traditional faith. She’s not afraid to speak her mind and call people out on rigid social norms.

The Essex Serpent makes me pine for a book club to discuss it with! Perry doesn’t shy away from any major social issues – ones that were prevalent in the Victorian times, as much as now. She lands blow after blow on the rich upper classes, criticising the lack of action around London’s housing crisis and poverty-stricken people. She uses Cora and Will to argue the faults and triumphs of science and religion. And she scrutinises what it means to be a woman by subverting lazy stereotypes, as seen through the relationship between Cora and Stella.

“She’s the kind of woman who’s misunderstood: they think because she’s so pretty and wears her clothes so well, and because she gossips and chatters, that she’s nothing but a ballerina in a jewellery box turning round and round: but I knew from her first letter that she’d a sharpness to her – I don’t think she misses anything, not even now.”

What I loved most about this book is that romance doesn’t save the day. The love triangle isn’t neatly resolved, and Cora doesn’t ride off into the sunset with one of her suitors.

“It’s a poor woman whose ambition is only to be loved. She has better things to be getting on with.”

Too many books force the importance of romantic love and marriage, using it as a way to denote a happy ending. The Essex Serpent has a wholeheartedly happy ending. But this isn’t to do with romance or finding an OTP. It’s about finding peace with yourself and learning how to live a content – if not always happy – life.

4 stars


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