Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)

It's the end of the 19th century, Cora Seaborne has just been widowed, and she's never been happier. She takes her companion Martha and her son Francis to Essex to get away from it all and it is there she meets local vicar Will Ransome, with whom she becomes fast friends. This despite their very different outlooks on religion and the local fear of a deadly serpent said to be haunting the sea and causing all sorts of strange happenings. Cora is an amateur naturalist and wants to believe the fears are founded and there is an undiscovered species lurking in the waters. Will is just as convinced it's all in their heads, and they just need to strengthen their religious convictions and see that there's nothing there.

I read the first 100 pages - about a quarter of the book - and put it down in favor of something else. It didn't feel like it was going anywhere and I didn't think I'd finish it. But then I bored of the other book, and felt inclined to pick this back up again. I stayed home sick from work one day, and read the last 200 pages in one day. So I guess I liked it after all.

It was rather atmospheric, what with unexplained phenomena and a character with consumption and a missing teenage girl.  Cora's son was also very unusual - I think these days we'd say that he's on the spectrum - but in the context of this book, his behavior just added to the air of mystery. Will's daughter Joanna was a bright young girl just coming into her own and had been friendly for many years with Naomi, a fisherman's daughter. Together they played at casting spells, but Joanna was starting to outgrow this mysticism for more serious studies, creating a rift in their friendship. Then Naomi went missing.

Cora's friendship with Will was central, and complex. He was married and Cora loved Stella too, as did Will. But it was also clear that Cora and Will's friendship was special. Cora was also friendly with a doctor, Luke Garrett, whose feelings for her were much stronger and he was vexed at her new friendship with Will. Cora's companion Martha also seemed devoted to Cora beyond the usual way. Cora had a lot going on, and many of the people around her grew impatient with how she was handling her newfound freedom, dressing in ways unbecoming to a lady and tramping about England doing whatever she wanted. I was very happy for her. Her husband was an ass and she was finally free of him, and she wasn't about to start acting in accordance with everyone else's expectations now. Although this novel was set in the Victorian period, the characters' behavior and relationships aren't what I expected to encounter - for instance, there was some casual sex - and I found that refreshing.

This isn't a fast-moving story with a complicated plot, and I think the reason I put it aside for a while was that I wasn't in the mood for it. Which is what I suspected at the time, as I couldn't point to anything specific about I didn't like. As I said, it's atmospheric, and focused on relationships, and the writing was of a fairly literary caliber. When I began I felt like I needed to concentrate, but I think I've just read a lot of books in a row written in a much simpler style, so it was a bit of a shift. This has been on my To Read shelf on Goodreads for a while - well, it think it was the first thing I added when I started using that shelf again - and I am quite glad I finally got to it.

Sarah Perry's new novel, Melmoth, will be out in October. It takes place in Prague and involves a dark legend and a missing person and sounds like it might have a similar feel to The Essex Serpent.

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