Bookish Discussions · Reviews

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent:


Rating: 2.5 stars | Read: 9 August – 11 August, 2018

‘You told me once to 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 in none? You are a woman, and must begin to live like one. By which, I mean: have courage’

I’ve had my eyes on Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent for a while now. It’s a widely read and loved novel in and out of the book community. It won the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016 and was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, so naturally my expectations were sky high. I’m not, however, one to enjoy hyped books. I’ll have high expectations, but I will go in knowing they probably won’t be met. This was most definitely the case with The Essex Serpent.

It opens in London, 1893. ‘Cora Seaborne’s husband has died, and she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned to roam the marshes. Cora is enthralled. Along the way, she collides with the local minster, William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…’ (Serpent’s Tail).

To start of with the positives: the writing and characterisation was utterly wonderful. I wouldn’t say the writing was lyrical, but there was definitely something about it. It was ethereal, mesmerising and swept you away with every word. Perry picked each word carefully, and they added up to create such an enchanting prose. The characterisation was equally as wonderful. I wouldn’t say there was any character development, as the characters already felt fully-formed, but they were solid characters. I felt intimate with them straight away. They each had their own personality, which shone through in the smallest of paragraphs. This was definitely my favourite aspect of the novel.

The Essex Serpent is set during the back-end of the 19th century, which is a period  I know a lot about. This was both a blessing and a curse. Firstly, I loved how Perry subverted the conventions of a 19th century woman. Cora was such an interesting protagonist who guided the plot in the best way. She didn’t succumb to what was expected of her. She was a New Woman; she didn’t dress according to tradition, she didn’t submit to men or religion, and her passion was poured into science and paleontology. Neo-Victorian writing allows authors freedom and flexibility to explore things that were taboo in contemporary times. Perry showed us another side to Victorian women that was often hid by contemporary society.

However, this was also the novel’s downfall. It didn’t feel Victorian at all. Perry didn’t rely on any of the literary conventions that Victorian writers did, which is something I feel is vital for neo-Victorian novels. It lacked detail – massively. Perry spent hardly any time on the novel’s setting. It if hadn’t been for the blurb telling me it was set in 1893, I wouldn’t have known. It wasn’t obvious at all. It could have been set in the twenty-first century, and I wouldn’t have known any different. It lacked detail on costumes and emotions. It just didn’t feel right to me, and that played a huge part in the reason why I didn’t like it. I really wanted to love this, but I was left feeling sorely disappointed.

Have you read this The Essex Serpent? What did you think of it? I’d love to know!

Thanks for reading, Lauren X


4 thoughts on “Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent:

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