Review: The Essex Serpent

I’m a sucker for a book award. I don’t always agree with the verdict, but slap a ‘Winner’ sticker on any novel and it will rocket to the top of my reading list. Call it curiosity, call it elitism, call it argumentative, call it whatever; if a book has been called ‘the best’, I want to find out why.

Hence my reading for this month: Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2016, Sarah Perry’s second novel The Essex Serpent.

Spoilers under the cut!

On New Years eve, a man strips naked at the edge of the Blackwater, desperate to feel the sharp sting of December wind on his skin. The next we hear of this man, he is discovered with his neck broken, his head twisted almost 180 degrees, amidst rumours that the great Essex Serpent is out preying for its victims. When a book opens with like this, you know you’re in for something special.

Perry’s novel is split between a number of characters. The first introduced is the ‘imp’ Doctor Luke Garrett, an ugly and abrasive surgeon. His friend, Spencer, spends the novel fretting over the attitude of his friend, and what to do with his large inherited fortune. He plans to invest in a housing project to impress the socialist Martha, his love interest. Martha finds herself enthralled with Edward Burton, a quiet and thoughtful man recovering from a stab wound and heart operation. Then there are Charles and Katherine Ambrose, London husband and wife who are good friends with the Reverend William Ransome and his wife Stella, and their children Joanna, James and John. Additionally, there is Cracknell (farmer and owner of two goats), Naomi (schoolgirl with webbed fingers), Thomas (very eloquent tramp), Samuel Hall (stabber to Edward’s stab-ee), Francis (strange child who steals ‘treasures’ )…

A very, very, long character list. Whats more, each character has their own story to keep up with, and individuals’ stories often cross paths and tangle amongst each other.

This is what I found most remarkable about this book: so many people taking the story in so many different directions, and yet I never felt lost. Perry’s fantastic characters are all so wonderfully written that I never forgot a name or a storyline. Each person has such a sense of life about them, has their own passions and eccentricities and insecurities, and each member of this very large cast list is completely different from the rest.

I purposely left one particular character out of the list. Cora Seaborne is widowed in the first chapter, but she only pretends to grieve because it’s what one does. She begins to relax, embrace the relief she feels at the death of her controlling husband, and travels to Essex in order to track the titular serpent. Cora is simultaneously superficial and meaningful, independent and dependant, even man and woman at times. Her recklessness and freedom in embracing life in Essex away from London restraints is such an interesting story to follow.

It is with Cora that Perry shows her best work. She includes little details showing Cora’s fluctuating image of womanhood, from her pearl earrings leaving her ears red and swollen, to her wearing men’s clothes in Essex. Cora eventually tells William Ransome that her ideal state would be just intellect – nothing physical, just floating, disembodied intellect. I also loved Cora’s relationship (or lack thereof) to her son Francis, as she tries to understand why her son does not want to hug her, and why she is not upset or angered by this. Cora Seaborne is one of the most interesting female characters I have read – not this year, not just recently, but out of everything I’ve ever read.

As the name suggests, one of the many storylines involves a giant snake-like monster, a legend in the town Essex village of Aldwinter. A great many suspicious circumstances and gruesome deaths are put down to the mythical beast, but there is one particular moment that really did shake me. Naomi Banks sits in her schoolroom, thinking of the serpent. She repeatedly looks over her shoulder towards the door to see it when it comes for her, and suddenly finds herself in a hysterical laughing fit that she cannot control. Slowly, the schoolgirls around her mirror her actions, snapping their heads round behind them and shrieking with laughter, while the adults in the room look on in horror at this freakish scene in front of them. This scene scared me more than I realised at first: I went to my kitchen to get a drink after reading it and found myself repeatedly looking over my shoulder to see if anything was behind me. That’s when I realised how clever and genuinely creepy that scene had been.

If there’s one thing missing from The Essex Serpent, it’s a real climax. Because there are so many storylines, each of their climaxes appears at various points, and each fits the story very well. However, I feel like the main story – that of the serpent that has caused so much damage in Aldwinter – did not have a real climax. Some of the sightings were given scientific explanations, others were attributed to madness or mania, others were left unexplained. I had expected more of the stories to conclude together, or for everyone to be involved in the discovery of the serpent, but instead I got a brief emotional punch and then a short chapter concluding that everything worked out okay and everyone is doing fine. Not exactly what I thought this emotionally driven, tense and eerie novel was building to.

That is, however, my only criticism. I was left a little underwhelmed as I finished the last page, but all-in-all this was a beautiful, haunting collection of powerful stories and very human characters.

4.5/5 stars.

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