Wednesday, 15 February 2017
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
review by Maryom
Recently widowed Cora Seaborne wants to be free of London and the conventional life she's forced into living there, so heads off to Colchester where rumours are spreading of the return of the mythical Essex Serpent to the small coastal village of Aldwinter. Cora is convinced this is merely a previously unrecognised species, and hopes to have her moment of fame by being the one to identify it, but the local vicar William Ransome views its appearance as a test of faith. Despite their opposing views, the two strike up a quick friendship, which becomes more intense and passionate as Ransome's wife falls ill.
Despite appearing on longlists and shortlists for all sorts of literary prizes - Dylan Thomas, Wellcome, Costa - and being voted Waterstones Book of the Year, to be honest I didn't warm to the Essex Serpent. A lot of the writing itself, with its echoes of Dickens and Hardy, appealed to me, but I didn't like the story itself, as it seemed amorphous and shifted about too much in focus, darting from serpents in Essex to pioneering surgery and workers' conditions in London. In keeping with the Dickensian style, there's a wide array of characters - and while all were brilliantly brought to life, some of them seemed unnecessary.
Cora herself is a wonderfully eccentric character - the Victorian wife's round of polite social chitchat isn't for her. Instead she's happier dressed in an old coat and heavy boots out hiking round the marches of Essex hoping to find signs of the mythical serpent, and fame for herself as the discoverer of a new species. William Ransome, too, torn between his affection for his wife and the fascination unconsciously exerted on him by Cora with her disregard for society's conventions, is a character you can believe in. But somehow, put together, their actions didn't quite fit - and the story lines concerning their families and friends seemed to detract from the main one rather than add to it.
In some ways, it feels like a book they may improve with a second or subsequent reading BUT I feel I'm not really likely to try it ...
Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Serpent's Tail
Genre - adult, historical fiction