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The Essex Serpent

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Sarah Perry's award-winning novel, set at the end of the nineteenth century and inspired by true events.

Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne's spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.

422 pages, Hardcover

First published May 27, 2016

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About the author

Sarah Perry

16 books1,820 followers
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979, and was raised as a Strict Baptist. Having studied English at Anglia Ruskin University she worked as a civil servant before studying for an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic at Royal Holloway, University of London. In 2004 she won the Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Award for travel writing.

In January 2013 she was Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library. Here she completed the final draft of her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood , which was published by Serpent's Tail in June 2014 to international critical acclaim. It won the East Anglian Book of the Year Award 2014, and was longlisted for the 2014 Guardian First Book Award and nominated for the 2014 Folio Prize. In January and February 2016 Sarah was the UNESCO City of Literature Writer-in-Residence in Prague.

Her second novel, The Essex Serpent , was published by Serpent's Tail in May 2016. It was a number one bestseller in hardback, and was named Waterstones Book of the Year 2016. It was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2017, and was longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2017, the Wellcome Book Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the New Angle Prize for Literature. It was broadcast on Radio 4 as a Book at Bedtime in April 2017, is being translated into eleven languages, and has been chosen for the Richard and Judy Summer Book Club 2017.

Sarah has spoken at a number of institutions including Gladstone's Library, the Centre of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, and the Anglo-American University in Prague, on subjects including theology, the history and status of friendship in literature, the Gothic, and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Her essays have been published in the Guardian and the Spectator, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She reviews fiction for the Guardian and the Financial Times.

She currently lives in Norwich, where she is completing her third novel.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
May 22, 2022
‘Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh, I don’t mean without morals or conscience—I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that…’ Frowning, she ran her thumb along the serpent’s spine and said, ‘I’ve never said this before, not to anyone, though I’ve meant to: but yes I’ve sold my soul, though I’m afraid it didn’t fetch too high a price. I had a faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad—to turn your back on everything new and wonderful—not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’
‘You think—you really think—that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
The Essex Serpent is a magnificent work that uses the form of the Gothic novel to explore real-world and very human concerns. It may be set in the late 19th century, but it resonates with issues just as compelling as those of the 21st. Superstition and faith versus science and fact. The nature and limits of friendship, the moral limits of medicine. Sarah Perry has said, “What most interests me about the past is not its otherness but its sameness.” One manifestation is a concern with the housing horrors of the poor in 19th century London, being squeezed by landlords, and their residences being replaced by more posh lodgings.
I wanted to portray a late nineteenth century which was in many respects ‘modern’, rather than a sort of Victoriana theme-park of pea-soupers and smelling-salts. By the 1890s you could travel by Tube and walk along an Embankment lit by electric lights, you could have a tooth pulled under anaesthesia, join a union, read the Times, buy frozen lamb shipped over from New Zealand, and so on. I suppose the obverse of saying 'they were rather like us' is to say 'and we are rather like them', and I do fear that we are regressing to a decidedly Victorian state when it comes to housing, and a tendency to think of those who live in poverty as in some way deserving it due to a lack of virtue rather than mere ill fortune.
Cora Seaborne, lately and happily relieved of her unloving, but controlling husband, by virtue of a fatal illness, is no one’s idea of a damsel in distress. Quite the opposite. She has a passion for learning and exploration. 1893, in the final decade of Victoria’s reign, was an exciting time. The World Columbian Exhibition opened in Chicago. Wall Street suffered another stock crash. Women voted for the first time in a national election in New Zealand. Cora is eager to be a part of this new age of scientific growth. Shedding her London home, (At Euston Square and Paddington the Underground stations received their passengers, who poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of molds.) and indulging her growing interest in paleobiology, Cora, along with her on-the-spectrum son, Francis, and his nanny, Cora’s friend Martha, heads to Colchester, in Essex. (“They’re finding fossils on the coast…Cora will be happy as a schoolboy there, up to her knees in mud.”).

Strange News out of Essex - a woodwork from the 1669 pamphlet

It is while on a random explore in the rain, and considering her oneness with nature,
It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance—not quite animal, but not merely earth; where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself a part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.
that she first meets Pastor Will Ransome. It definitely counts as meet cute when they, neither knowing who the other is, team up to retrieve an animal that had gotten stuck in the considerable mud.

The pastor and the naturalist will form a beautiful bond as they engage in a dialectic of faith, reason and respectful consideration, and sometimes hostile confrontation. The core of faith in tension with science is central. Rumors of a serpent have been making rounds, a return of a creature last reported in the 17th century. Many of the locals indulge in superstition as fear spreads. Will is determined to put an end to such notions, but the naturalist, Cora, is hoping it might be a remnant of what had been thought a lost species, a plesiosaur perhaps, bringing to her scientific approach a considerable store of faith in the possible. Perry plays these tensions like Itzhak Perlman on a Stradivarius.

Sarah Perry - from The Guardian

The tension between faith and science is far from the only buzzing string here. The connection Cora and Will make leads to battles of both the expected and surprising sorts, and while the core of their words is beyond reproach, their growing affection for each other, excitement at intellectual challenge, but also excitement at the very presence of the other, makes for more than a bit of discomfort. While Cora is happily widowed, Pastor Will remains smitten with his beautiful, both in body and spirit, wife, Stella, a star who would sparkle in any firmament. Of course, lustrous though she may be, Stella is not exactly in the best of health. Can Cora and Will’s friendship sustain, or will it transform into something else?
William Ransome and Cora Seaborne, stripped of code and convention, even of speech, stood with her strong hand in his; children of the earth and lost in wonder.
As for that beastie, the notion for the story was a happy accident.
It was Sarah Perry’s husband who told her, on a car journey through Essex, having spotted a sign to the village of Henham, about the legend of a serpent. Perry felt her scalp tighten, the better to grasp the idea and keep it safe inside her head – a feeling she has become used to when she thinks of something she knows will make a great book. “Immediately, I thought if that beast came back in the Victorian era, post-Darwin, when there was a trend for natural history and people were fossil-collecting, people would have a very different response from those in the 17th century, who had seen this beast.”- from The Guardian interview
The structure of the core conflict came to Perry in a flash… between myth and superstition and faith and reason and science and all of those clashing over this one potential beast. But how best to orchestrate it?

Tom Hiddleston as Pastor Will Ransome, from the Apple TV+ series - image from IMDB

The Gothic form offered a welcome approach. There are familiar elements, sometimes reimagined. The typical spooky castle finds an outlet in a more natural setting, a spot where civilization tapers off and the natural (or supernatural?) picks up, a marshland, abutting the Blackwater River, near an estuary, the fittingly named World’s End. Darkness abounds there, as do barely visible things and events that offer rich fodder for active imaginations. In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time—implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction… An atmosphere of mystery pervades. Just what the hell is going on? An ancient and obscure prophecy portends unpleasantness ahead. Well, folks thereabouts are persuaded that the promise of the serpent’s return was being fulfilled. Omens, portents, visions. So many. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. Yep, and some pretty outstanding natural ones as well. High, even overwrought emotion. Fuh shoo-uh. Science-minded, free-at-last widow meets studly, passionate, intellectually curious cleric. And plenty of raised voices beside. But the high emotional level also extends to being dazzled by beauty. Women in distress. Well, not the usual sort. Stella is particularly unwell, but seems less stressed than enthralled by it. Cora is a modern woman, so no poor-weak-thing act being performed. There is plenty of the vocabulary of the gothic. For example, chapter one begins One o’clock on a dreary day…

Clair Danes as Cora in the Apple TV+ series - image from Voice Nation

There is also the romantic element in the gothic approach. The Will-Cora connection has already been mentioned. There are a few other connections of this sort that are addressed. But the overwhelming connection throughout the book is of friendship, even if the lines between where friendship leaves off and another kind of relationship picks up can be a bit murky, and even if love is the beating heart of all sorts of friendships.
What I absolutely didn’t want to do was to write a book about two people who madly fancy each other and at the end of the book they fall in love and they get married. That’s so tiresome and life is so much more rich and complex and complicated than that. I wanted to write about a relationship that is intimate and tender and exciting and even erotic but not a conventional ‘boy-meets-girl and they’re soulmates and they live happy ever after’ story.

Perry aimed to write about as many different kinds of friendship love as I could find. Ones which blur the boundaries between romantic love and friendship, seeing sexual desire as something cathartic and benevolent, even when it’s not connected to any kind of romantic attachment. I still maintain that Cora and Will are basically friends but that their friendship is capacious and different and subject to change - as human relationships are.” - from the Waterstones interview
There are external elements throughout the book that buttress both nature and the sublime. Perry has the eye of a naturalist. She makes considerable and stunning use of this talent to breathe life into her landscapes.
When the rain set in, she delved deeper between the trees, turning her face to the featureless sky. It was a uniform grey, without shifting of clouds or sudden blue breaks, and no sign at all of the sun: it was an unwritten sheet of paper, and against it the bare branches were black. It ought to have been dreary, but Cora saw only beauty—birches unfurled their strips of bark like lengths of white cloths, and under her feet wet leaves were slick. Everywhere bright moss had taken hold, in dense wads of green fur swaddling the trees at their foot, and fine pelts on broken branches that lay across the path.
There are plenty more bits of this here. Stella adds a particularly ethereal appreciation for the color blue, both in its natural state and as manufactured. Blue, in fact, tints the novel for a considerable swath in a way that is both beautiful and alarming. Cora’s son, Francis, has an interest in the natural world as well, and offers some insights, although he lacks the experience to be able to interpret what he observes.

There is a rich supply of secondary characters, some of whom receive starring role treatment. They serve to illuminate issues of the day. One is a doctor on the cutting edge of his profession, another a memorable local, who will mar your dreams with visions of unspeakable fence decorations and resident earwigs. Martha’s social activism highlights the housing issues in London, but also a sexual freedom that addresses the constraints of Victorian mores.

Perry is not a satirist, but she does offer a particularly delicious line from one of her supporting cast, someone who dismisses notions of a returned monster: I’m quite religious, you know: no patience for the supernatural.

As for gripes, blissfully few. The vanishing of one young lass lacked a persuasive rationale, I thought. There was one scene late in the book that I found a bit off-putting, but it would be too spoilerish to note it here. Neither of these imperiled for me the overall joy I experienced reading this book.

For me the notion of the bliss of the beautiful that permeates TES can be summed up in a line from Cora.
’It was just the light,’ she said, ‘up to its old tricks. But how was my heart to know?’
A wondrous read, satisfying to both heart and mind, The Essex Serpent is a spectacular achievement, a masterpiece by a gifted writer at the peak of her power.

Review first posted – 3/24/17

-----May 27, 2016 – the original hardcover, in the UK
-----June 6, 2017 – by Custom House, in the USA
-----April 24, 2018 - trade paper

November 15, 2017 - The Essex Serpent is named one of the top fifty notable works of fiction of the year by The Washington Post

November 22, 2017 - The Essex Serpent is named one of its 100 Notable Books of the year by The New York Times

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages. You should know that as of the date of this post, her personal site was still under construction.

-----The Guardian - The Essex Serpent author Sarah Perry: ‘Kids at school found me strange. I didn’t mind’ - interview by Emine Saner
-----FiveBooks.com - Sarah Perry recommends the best Gothic Fiction - Interview by Beatrice Wilford - December 1, 2016
-----Waterstones -The Book Perry Was Meant to Write - by Sally Campbell - December 10, 2016
-----The Guardian - Well, not really an interview, but a lovely piece by Perry on the making of the TV series - ‘When Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston were cast I was in shock’: Sarah Perry on The Essex Serpent - a delight

The Essex Serpent
------British Library - On the trail of the Essex Serpent - Perry describes her encounter with the original 1669 pamphlet that inspired the novel

The Gothic Novel
-----A fabulous lesson – This is where I got the list of Gothic novel characteristics I used for that part of the review - Elements of the Gothic Novel
-----A wonderful video from Study.com - Gothic Novels: Characteristics & Examples - it is limited, though. One must be a subscriber to see it all. Still, worth a look.

-----In classical mythology, Cora--or Kore-- was another name of Persephone, goddess of fertility and the underworld. – from nameberry.com
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews584 followers
November 20, 2016
Well, this will certainly teach me about that old adage re books and covers. I really love a Victorian floral in the William Morris mode and buttercup yellow endpapers, charming !

In my mind this was going to be a gothic tale of serpents and maybe some Victorian sexual repression - something along those lines.
Certainly, serpents were mentioned, people seemed flustered about it but the entire thing lacked any kind of narrative tension or gothic edge, unless you count the odd fog.

Then there was the love quadrilateral, I really stopped counting how many people were in love with Cora, not by all accounts a great beauty or from what I could see particularly engaging. So this epidemic of lovelorn people seemed puzzling to me. Passions when they did very briefly arise were kind of neutered and odd. This is certainly not a Victorian romance novel then.
One could read it for passing social commentary on the dire state of housing in Bethnal Green or perhaps for an interesting account of medical procedures of the era. My point being this seemed like a novel struggling to figure out what it wanted to be. There was some very picturesque writing on landscapes and scents and sounds but this only takes a novel so far.
I somehow missed something in this book that resonated with other readers, perhaps one needed to fall in love with Cora as well.

In my opinion if you need to read a "contemporary Victorian novel" it has to be Faber's "Crimson Petal and the White"
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,352 followers
May 17, 2017
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

After the death of her husband, the intelligent young widow, Cora Seaborne, abandons her society life in London and departs for coastal Essex, accompanied by her neurotic eleven-year-old son and his nanny. Cora's plans to recuperate are derailed when she learns of a rumor about a mythical serpent taking the lives of villagers further up the estuary. Feeding her interest in natural history, she journeys to learn more about the serpent and makes the acquaintance of William Ransome, the stalwart priest of Aldwinter. Though Cora believes the snake is real, William does not and has no patience for what he deems godless superstition, but they are nonetheless drawn together in an inescapable attraction of opposites.

He surveyed John's drawing, and this time took it for a winged sea-dragon approaching the village. Since the discovery on New Year's morning of a drowned man down on the Blackwater marshes - naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide open eyes - the Essex Serpent had ceased to be merely a device to keep children in check, and had begun to stalk the streets.

The greatest quality of The Essex Serpent is Cora Seaborne, an unorthodox woman who is perfectly comfortable breaking with convention. Her self-confidence, progressive attitude, and scientific mind make her an attractive and eccentric protagonist.

'I've freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,' said Cora: 'And I was never more happy. I can't remember when I last looked in the mirror -'

Little Gothic flourishes in the narrative make for a delectable treat. Romance and death are prevalent, but the book falls short in terms of atmosphere. In rare moments where an eerie mood is evoked, it works to rouse the appetite but fails to fully sate one's hunger for a haunting tale.

Earlier that day she'd explained to him, whispering in cold corners, that something was rotten in the village of Aldwinter. There was the drowned man, for one thing [. . .], and the sickness at Feetlewell, and the way they all woke from dreams of wet black wings.

They stood between the ribs of a clipper which had pitched up there a decade ago and never shifted from the shore. In the harshness of the weather it had worn down to little more than a dozen black curved posts that looked so much like the opened chest cavity of a drowned beast that visitors took to calling it Leviathan.*

In addition to its Gothic vibe, the book undoubtedly reads like a classic with its formal language suitable to the time in which the story takes place (late nineteenth century England), lingering standards of Victorian morality, and men taking special care to be mindful of antiquated notions such as feminine sensibilities.

'I daresay you've heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henman and Wormingford, and has been seen again?' Delighted, Cora said that she had not. 'Ah,' said Taylor, growing mournful, 'I wonder if I ought not to trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.'

For all its strengths, The Essex Serpent suffers a deficit when it comes to story. Multiple subplots, some of them duplicates, make for an overlong and convoluted narrative. One story line in particular crackles with potential but remains untapped: .

Readers who enter The Essex Serpent anticipating a harrowing read about a terrifying creature will be sorely disappointed. Instead, anticipate lovely writing, a capable female protagonist, redundant love stories, subplots that reach fairly satisfying conclusions, and a generous amount of fog in lieu of a well-developed Gothic atmosphere.

*The remains of the clipper, known as Leviathan, where villagers loiter is reminiscent of the novelette The Deluge at Norderney from Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, which opens with the following passage:

Ladies and gentlemen of fashion abandoned the shade of their parks to come and walk upon the bleak shores and watch untameable waves. The neighborhood of a shipwreck, where, in low tide, the wreck was still in sight, like a hardened, black, and salted skeleton, became a favorite picnic place, where fair artists put up their easels.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,661 followers
June 3, 2016
(4.5) This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love. The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. Mysterious deaths and disappearances are automatically attributed to the Serpent that dwells in the depths of the Blackwater. This atmosphere of paranoia triggers some schoolgirls to erupt in frenzied delusions as in The Crucible. It is unclear whether the Church should tolerate a source of mystery or dismiss it all as nonsense – after all, there’s a winged serpent carved onto one of the pews at the parish church.

In a domestic counterpart to all these supernatural goings-on, we gain entry into two middle-class households. Cora Seaborne’s abusive husband, Michael, has recently died of throat cancer, leaving her to raise their odd (autistic, I wondered?) eleven-year-old son Francis on her own. She has an amateur interest in fossils to rival Mary Anning’s, so when she hears of a cache near Colchester she leaves London for Essex, bringing along Frankie and her companion, Martha. Mutual friends put her in touch with Will Ransome, the vicar of Aldwinter, sure that he and his family – consumptive wife Stella and children Joanna, James and John – will be able to show her around the coast.

Despite an inauspicious first meeting, which sees Cora and Will, still unknown to each other, hauling a drowning sheep out of a lake, theirs soon becomes a close, easy friendship. Cora feels she can speak her mind about the faith she lost and the new marvels she finds in nature:
I had faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I’ve seen what it does and I traded it in. It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!

She holds her own in cerebral debates with Will as he deplores his parishioners’ fantasies about the Serpent. Is there really such a big difference between his faith – “all strangeness and mystery – all blood, and brimstone,” Cora teases – and the Serpent legend? In seeming contradiction to his career path, Will is more suspicious than many of the other characters of things he doesn’t understand and can’t explain away, like hypnosis and a Fata Morgana.

The novel’s nuanced treatment of faith and doubt is enhanced by references to Victorian science, including fossil hunting and early medical procedures. Dr. Luke Garrett, Michael’s surgeon, is one of Cora’s best friends back in London; she calls him “The Imp.” In one of the most striking passages of the entire book, he performs rudimentary heart surgery on the young victim of a stab wound. Perry fills in the novel’s background with a plethora of apt Victorian themes, including housing reform and London crime. For a book of 440 pages, it has a large cast and a fairly epic scope. Although there are places where subplots and minor characters might have been expanded upon, Perry wisely refrains from stuffing the novel with evidence of her research. Indeed, it’s a restrained book overall, yet breaks out into effusiveness in just the right places, as in Stella’s mystical adoration of the color blue.

Descriptive passages and the letters passing between the characters give a clear sense of the months passing, yet there is also something timelessly English about the narrative – Dickensian in places (Our Mutual Friend) and Hardyesque in others (Far from the Madding Crowd). I especially loved this picture of the June countryside:
Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.

Cross this cozy pastoral vision with the Gothic nature of the Serpent craze and you get quite a unique atmosphere. The vague, unexplained sense of menace didn’t work for me at all in Perry’s previous novel, After Me Comes the Flood, but here it’s just right.

It was no doubt true in the late Victorian period that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” (as famously declared in When Harry Met Sally). No one is quite sure what to make of a sexually available, self-assured female like Cora. The different kinds of Greek love, from philia to eros, keep shading into each other here. Like the water that forms the book’s metaphorical substrate, the relationships ebb and flow. Yet there’s no denigrating any connection as just friendship; in fact, friendship is enough to rescue one character from suicide. Like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the novel asks whether love is ever enough to save us – and gives a considerably more optimistic answer.

The fact that I have an MA in Victorian literature means I’m drawn to Victorian-set novels but also highly critical about their authenticity. While reading this, though, I thoroughly believed that I was in 1890. Moreover, Perry adroitly illuminates the situation of the independent “New Woman” and the quandary of science versus religion (which were the joint subjects of my dissertation: women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction).

I’m delighted, especially having seen Perry speak at Bloxham Festival in February (see my write-up for more on her background and the inspirations behind this novel), to have liked The Essex Serpent three times as much as her debut. It has an elegant, evocative writing style reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Penelope Fitzgerald. Something holds me back from the full 5 stars – too diffuse? Too much staying on the surface of things? Not quite intimate enough, especially about Cora’s inner life? – but I still declare myself mightily impressed. The Essex Serpent counts as one of my favorite novels of 2016 so far. You can see why Serpent’s Tail (how perfect is her publisher’s name?!) rushed this one into publication a few weeks early. Expect to see it on the Booker Prize shortlist and any other award list you care to mention.

With thanks to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald at Serpent’s Tail for the free review copy.

Originally published with images on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,904 reviews437 followers
October 15, 2016
I was wavering between a one and a two star rating, but my disappointment landed on a one. I hoped, and was led to expect, that this would be a tale of Victorian cryptozoology. That there would be an independent and interesting woman, recently widowed Cora, hunting for a creature while being hampered by the local pastor. Turns out the serpent barely features.

I didn't feel I got to know Cora, and I didn't particularly like any of the cast. This was more of a love triangle than anything else, although the purpose of the book still eludes me. Long-winded and boring, not recommended.
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,724 followers
October 8, 2017
We are cleaved together - we are cleaved apart - everything that draws me to you is everything that drives me away.

How I loved holding this book in my hands, with the gorgeous William Morris cover and the soft, uneven deckle-edged pages. While perusing this lovely volume, I revelled in the gothic atmosphere. I looked forward to the intimate letters and notes sprinkled throughout the narrative. I was intrigued by the mystery of the serpent, the palpable fear of those in the damp, mossy, seaside village of Aldwinter. Not to mention the writing, oh the writing!

And, I loved the characters. All of them, from the hunched, brilliant surgeon Luke Garrett, to the enlightened and captivating star-fairy Stella Ransome. I even felt for the plight of the miserable knife-wielding attacker, Samuel Hall. The humanity of each character shone through.

I didn't want to put the book down, but now that I have finished it so quickly I am a little remorseful - it is over and I am yanked out of this alluring world. This world in which the natural and spiritual battle against each other uselessly. Where love, whether unrequited, divisive, undefined, or "wrong" remains nonetheless, a jewel that cannot be ignored or apologised for. In this world women are beautiful and wise, or they cast away their beauty and refused to be defined that way, or they have more important things to do in their lives than chase beauty and its rewards. In this world, there is a Victorian consumptive, a legend of Loch Ness proportions that sends children into terrifying hysterics, and a dark and impoverished London in the backdrop.

But am I really that far from the world Sarah Perry created? It's true that people in this story gaze at sea treasures and wildflowers instead of their smartphones. Other than that, she created a truly accessible tale, with themes and situations that are more modern than one might have imagined, in this gothic, Victorian book that boasts the spectres of Stoker, Shelley, Collins and Dickens.

Fear is the serpent that slithers throughout this book's pages. Fear of a monster, yes. But also all the secret fears that lie in our hearts. The serpent mirrors our innate terror of death, of what slinks damply, hidden in the fog. It mimics a phallic shape in matters of passion and its frightening consequences. It's the awful suspicion that one is alone and unseen, leaving no prints, and with nothing tethering one to the surface of the earth. It is fear of our spiritual path, or lack of one.

This book does not provide answers, just a platform for the human heart - cleaved - and oh, it is such a beautiful thing to behold.
Profile Image for Paula K .
435 reviews417 followers
September 24, 2018
What a surprisingly charming book!

Nominated for both The Women’s Prize and The Costa Book Award, The Essex Serpent is a beautifully written book. Set in 1893 Essex, England, we meet Cora Seaborne, recently and happily widowed and William Ransome, the town vicor, who is dealing with rumors and superstition of a returning mythical Essex Serpent.

Cora, an amateur naturalist, develops such an interesting friendship with William Ransome. At odds with each other and always with opposing views (science vs. religion) they entertain us with their sharp dialogue. Their repertoire is fascinating and at times quite hilarious.

Sarah Penny’s book has everything to offer from a well thought out plot, excellent character development, and humorous dialogue.

Highly recommend.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,714 followers
October 6, 2018
"The pendulum swings from one year to the next, and there’s darkness on the face of the deep."

The year is 1893 and something evil is lurking in the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, England. Nearly two hundred years prior, a hideous, winged serpent was said to rise from the waters and walk the woods and the commons, terrorizing the villagers. As quickly as it had appeared, it once again disappeared and was no longer to be seen… until now. The inhabitants of Aldwinter and the surrounding villages are once again caught up in a hysteria that seizes them by day and haunts them by night.

If you think this brief description marks this as a gripping horror novel perfect for the month of October, I’d have to say… it depends. The terror lies in the anticipation, much as it does for the main characters as well as the masses of the townspeople. "The point is not what I see, but what I feel; I cannot see the ether yet I feel it enter and depart, and depend upon it. I feel that something is coming; sooner or later, my words be marked." I was not frightened by The Essex Serpent, but I was thoroughly absorbed by it. This is a story more about the thought-provoking ideas, the masterful characterizations, and the striking settings. The ideas may not be new, but they are woven so intelligently throughout the plot that I couldn’t help but reflect on them from a different angle perhaps. Faith and superstition versus science and reason – these themes could never be exhausted entirely, and the interest lies in refreshingly original ways of presenting them to an audience. I felt that Sarah Perry did just that. She offers a well-balanced view of both sides of the equation and it is up to us, as discerning readers, to come to a conclusion, if any.

Cora Seaborne, recently widowed from a troubled marriage, is a naturalist. She worships the famed fossil hunter and paleontologist, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis. Now free of the bonds of wedlock, Cora strikes out with son Francis, likely autistic, and companion Martha, a socialist, to Essex in order to dig in the dirt and perhaps unravel this mystery of the serpent. Cora is a heroine that I could wholly admire. "Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh, I don’t mean without morals or conscience – I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that..." When she comes up against the likes of Will Ransome, an improbable friendship as well as an intellectually rewarding rivalry ensues. Will is the resident vicar of Aldwinter, who of late has had to deal with the challenges of a parish that has opened itself up to the perils of superstition. "There was a feeling – mostly unspoken, at least in his presence – that they were all under judgment, doubtless well deserved, from which only he could deliver them; but what comfort could he offer which would not also affirm their sudden fear?" There seems to be a spark between these two, but Will is happily married to Stella, described as a fairylike little woman of ethereal qualities with a grim diagnosis of tuberculosis. Cora is too recently liberated from the authority of a man and besides has the devotion of another man, Dr. Luke Garrett. There could not be anything more between these two other than friendship, right? So they deny to themselves and one another any sort of attraction. "We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I."

What shined most in this novel, in my opinion, were the vivid characters and the stimulating dialogue. There are a number of players to keep track of here, but each is so well-fleshed out that it never became at all confusing. A list of names is not provided nor is it needed. The conversations between Cora and Will are riveting and so smart. I don’t have time to mention everyone here, but it would be an extreme oversight on my part if I did not acknowledge Dr. Luke Garrett as well as his wealthy friend, George Spencer. Dr. Garrett is a bit of a revolutionary, so to speak, in the medical world. He is forward-thinking, but nearing the end of the Victorian era, the public were still resistant to many of the new practices. For that matter, the medical community itself was not entirely accepting of his innovative ideas. I regarded Luke Garrett quite highly and he very well may have been my favorite character. The relationship between Luke and George is another facet of friendship that the author very sympathetically illustrates for us. In fact, one could say that besides the thesis of faith versus science, friendship and love are further themes illuminated quite brilliantly within this novel.

I recommend The Essex Serpent to fans of historical fiction or anyone interested in the debate between faith and science. Sarah Perry’s writing is rather addictive, and I am quite keen to check out Melmoth, due for release shortly. For further reading on the topic, I also recommend Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which I found to be a truly excellent piece of historical fiction.

"I’ve always said there are no mysteries, only things we don’t yet know; but lately I’ve thought not even knowledge takes all strangeness from the world."
Profile Image for Baba.
3,619 reviews986 followers
March 20, 2022
In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne is freed of her abusive husband on his death and forthrightly decides to un-hinder herself from compliance to gender norms and other people in general; seeing herself as an amateur botanist/archaeologist she descends on Essex with her companion Martha and her likely high functioning autistic son. It's in Essex that Cora finds herself, her acquaintances and the entire village she settles in. caught up in rumours and stories of a monstrous Essex serpent!

This pretty well written literary work already felt like a great read to me, even before I realised that the overriding theme could be about the nature of real love and what we would do in the name of it; as in, so much love is one-sided and/or can't be reciprocated, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing! Within this Victorian setting, Perry beautifully portrays this with heart and passion, I should also mention that there is quite divine detail of Victorian (Essex) village life; and there's a magnificent multidimensional and multi-faceted cast, that came a live in these pages for me. One of those books I feel that we should all read. 8 out of 12. Also... TV adaptation coming soon:

2022 read
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,137 reviews4,177 followers
June 1, 2021
Reading this was like looking at the back of a tapestry: I can see the skill with which the rich materials are worked, feel the magic instilled, and know there is something fascinating on the other side - but it’s less than the sum of its parts. There’s a potentially excellent book here, struggling to untangle and refine itself, but unfortunately that’s not what I read.

Image: The back of a tapestry at Knole (Source.)

Plot and Characters - no spoilers

The story covers 12 months of 1893. Cora Seabourne’s abusive husband dies, leaving her with an eleven-year old son, plenty of money, and scope to investigate fossils and myths. She’s “not obliged to be much of a woman any more” and is drawn to Aldwinter, a small town on the Essex marshes, plagued by whispers of a resurgent ancient serpent.

Cora’s companion, Martha, is also nanny/governess to Francis (who appears to have Asperger’s/ASD), and she increasingly devotes herself to social reform.

There are many other characters, the most important being Rev Ransome and family. Will “felt it a failing that his parish could have succumbed to such a godless superstition”, so he refers to “The Trouble… reluctant to christen a rumour”. Devout Will and unbelieving Cora develop a friendship where “they sharpen themselves on each other… each by turn is blade and whetstone”, as they study and debate science, nature, and God.

The big question is about the serpent: is the village is suffering collective delusion, God’s judgement, or lack of faith? Perhaps it’s just a tale to tell tourists for pennies or to frighten children to conformity? And serpents always suggest desire, repression, temptation, and possible transgression. When an answer seems to be provided. Will thinks ”the mystery had not been solved so much as denied”, which fits his Victorian mores and clerical collar.

Other questions concern personal relationships of every kind, often triangular: blessed and taboo, sweet and sour, pure and profane.

The ending was the least formulaic and thus most satisfying aspect for me - though much of the lead-up was trite.

Contrasting Themes

The overriding theme is contrast: the subplots ebb and flow like the tide in the marsh. It’s no coincidence that Cora cites the Janus word, cleave (to cling and to separate), in a letter to Will.
“We are cleaved together - we are cleaved apart - everything that draws me to you is everything that drives me away.”

The story is set at a time of rapid social, political, scientific, and technological change, but it wasn’t uniform. This creates dramatic tension, and each pair of many contrasts could be a story in its own right:

• Town and country
• Land, sea, and marshes
• Manual and industrial
• Belief and unbelief
• Science and faith
• Religion (“a faith of reason”) and superstition (“darkness”)
• Truth and imagination/pareidolia
• Education and ignorance
• Capitalism and socialism
• Poverty and wealth
• Revenge and forgiveness
• Health and sickness
• Dependence and independence
• Adults and children
• Women and men
• Marriage and singledom
• Choice and coercion
• Life and death

Hence, there are many unequal friendships and other relationships, often triangular ones, triggering personal epiphanies and difficult decisions.

Image: Woodcut of Flying Serpent from 1669 pamphlet, that inspired Sarah Perry (Source.)


The atmosphere, whether of town, country, or betwixt the land and sea, is seductively vivid, but the characters are more clichéd, and thus much of the plot somewhat formulaic: the rebel, the beautiful consumptive, the brilliant surgeon, the wise fool, the reformed rascal, the questioning idealist (wanting purpose, not achievement), the victim, the villain, and so on. Heavy-handed: I lost count of the number of times I was told about Cora wearing a man’s coat and boots.

Cora and Martha are confident in not submitting to traditional gender roles. That's great, but the faint suggestion of a frisson of something more (and between another same-sex pair) felt awkward. I wasn't sure if Perry was being coyly Victorian, or I was reading too much into it.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that it tries to do and be too much, “part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable” (Jennifer Senior, admiringly, in NYT). It has the social conscience of Dickens, independent heroines of Bronte, gothic hues of Stoker and Shelley, shadowy crime of Wilkie Collins, earthy urges like a subdued Lawrence, and so on.

Historical figures are mentioned, including a good quota of women (Mary Anning, Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, George Peabody, Elizabeth Fry, and John Galt), but it feels like name-dropping to show Perry has done her research, rather than a fully integrated and necessary part of the story.

The dialogue, including some of the letters that pepper the novel, often felt wrong for the era in wording and tone (but I’m no expert). Even if one of the participants was pushing conventions, I would expect others to be surprised at the degree of informality and intimacy, and lack of deference.

The hypnosis episode was… odd, and I wasn’t convinced by the characters’ motives and reactions.

Can tuberculosis trigger autistic-like symptoms?

Like AS Byatt?

I enjoyed this book more than my review implies, but that was more passive than the irritations. It would have worked better for me if I’d studied in a group, rather than read it alone: there’s certainly lots to discus. Perhaps too much.

Reading this was like many of my encounters with AS Byatt: plenty to admire, but many factors that meant it fell short. The parallels are especially close with Possession, including the vein of palaeontology (see my 3* review HERE). On the other hand, I loved Byatt’s short story, The Thing in the Forest (see my 5* review HERE), which like this, dabbles in folk mythology of a monstrous serpent.


Before marriage, Cora’s much older future husband said,
What a thing it would be: to have me break you, and mend your wounds with gold.
But Cora was “armour-clad with youth, and never felt the blade go in”.

Image: Kintsugi plates (Source.)

• Passengers on the Tube “poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of moulds”.

• “Martha - whose impatience shivered in the spokes of her umbrella.”

• “She’d lived all her life here at the margin of the world, and never once thought to distrust its changing territory.”

• “The air was thick with the uselessness of their longing.”

• “I seem to have learned you by heart.”

• “Autumn’s kind to Aldwinter: thick sun aslant on the common forgives a multitude of sins… Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk.”

• “Autumn fends off the diligent winter… A barbarous all-too-much beauty… The oaks shine copper in the sunblast; the hedgerows are scarlet with berries.”

• “We share a habit of finding beauty no-one else sees.”

• “Own nothing which is not beautiful or useful.” Sarah Perry, through Cora, channelling Marie Kondō.

• “He does not miss her, since she seems so insistently present.”

• “I love you and I am content without you.”
Profile Image for Katie.
277 reviews356 followers
March 24, 2017
You might say The Essex Serpent is about the strivings and fears of the child within. When we’re children we have no problem whatsoever believing that a huge winged beast might live in the dark waters behind the marshlands if that’s what we’re told and what legend believes. And as children we’re always struggling to forge a bond with some companion we single out as being a kind of annunciation angel. Everyone in this novel possesses a restless heart. Everyone has a deep sea monster lurking beneath the surface of their thoughts.

The underlying premise of the novel is a conflict at the heart of the Victorian age – science vs superstition, free thinking vs prudishness. An Essex village is in uproar after some mysterious deaths of both animals and a man on the shores of the Blackwaters. Clearly the sea serpent, last seen in 1669, has returned. The village begins to wonder what it has done wrong to bring back the serpent. The two central characters and the novel’s thematic opponents, Will the parish rector and the recently widowed, scientifically motivated Cora meet in the mud at the water’s edge.

Virtually no character in this novel has their amorous feeling returned. Whether they are adults or children. Everyone is returned continually to imagination by obstacles. And too much imagination promotes hysteria, especially in the very young. Perry does a fabulous job not only of dramatizing the sea serpent as metaphor of sexual desire but also of sustaining the possibility of the monster actually appearing throughout the novel.

We tend to view the Victorians in much the same way we view our own parents – they’re more prudish than we are, more set in their ways, less adventurous. Sarah Perry debunks this idea. Her Victorians are no less imaginative, sexually bold, open to new ideas than we are; the implication being that we are no less prone to superstition, nighttime terrors and blind prejudice than they were. So though this is set in Victorian England it has an exuberant playful contemporary quality to it.

At the end of the day it doesn’t perhaps have any deep philosophical messages about life. But the quality and imaginative vitality of writing has that gift of making you see the familiar in an altered and illuminating light. I loved the vitality and mischief and haunting, loveable, modernised Dickensian characters and would definitely recommend it to all and sundry.

Profile Image for mark monday.
1,677 reviews5,258 followers
September 28, 2017
A snake of doubt winds its way through their lives, forked tongue flicking, a subtle sneaking menace. It slithers through the villagers' minds, bringing their faith low, raising their superstitions high. It slips through chinks in the vicar's armor, built so carefully over a lifetime. It slides into our heroine's life and into that of her friend, the doctor, whispering into their minds when they are at their weakest. Its brother serpent, a snake of indifference, has already claimed its victims: the poor of London, trapped in their tenements, jailed by a class system and government that shrugs and looks away.

But they are merely snakes, both of them! Two of God's creatures - or Nature's, depending on your personal predilection towards or away from faith. No need to fear them. They slither and slip and slide through all of our lives at some point... such things are natural. Sarah Perry knows these snakes, their sly whispers, the damage they may do when allowed to nest in the hearts of men and women; she also recognizes that they are merely little beasts. What frightens in the dark of night becomes less fearful in the day, or in the company of our fellows. The Essex Serpent is no monster, it is merely an idea - or a symbol. Make of this serpent what you will: but do not let it rule you.


This wonderful book! It had much that enchanted.

❁ A splendidly detailed era; I lived there. ❃

❁ A love of nature and, even more, of curiosity. ❃

❁ A newly independent woman, finally free and embracing the world; she is only one of a whole gallery of idiosyncratic characters who still remain completely real. My favorite: a child who is, in the modern parlance, "on the spectrum"... also perfectly realized and never condescended to, fully understood and respected by the author. ❃

❁ An exploration of faith that never became preachy or dismissive. A study of science that never turned reductive or dry. A romance, of sorts, neither mawkish nor predictable. ❃

❁ Glorious prose that made me smile from beginning to end, just reading those carefully composed sentences, the poetry of Perry's words, the sense that she loved writing them and making sure they said just the right thing, in just the right way. Haunting images rendered with crystalline clarity. ❃

❁ Fascinating themes and ideas woven throughout the narrative, until what seemed like flourishes became a clear pattern, uniting all of the seemingly disparate parts together, transforming them into something beautiful. ❃

❁ An author at ease with her subjects and the story she is telling; despite the perfection of the prose, the happy feeling that the novel flowed out of her in a natural way. The book was never a chore to read and it felt like it was the opposite of a chore to write. A relaxing yet invigorating experience. ❃

❁ An ideal ending: played with surprising but minor notes; lacking wish fulfillment, yet still perfectly satisfying. ❃

That's the word for me when thinking back on The Essex Serpent: satisfying.

The book is sublime.
"I have you all now ... I have you all here now, sweethearts: be with me now before I go."
Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,131 followers
February 26, 2020
If a book fits wear it with pride, if not discard in the knowledge you tried

It is so difficult to review a book that so many of my good read friends have loved and I didn't. I really disliked The Essex Serpent to the point of frustration that 200 pages in I had to give up and trust me I hate giving up on books.

I struggled from the very first chapter with this book, it’s setting, timeframe and characters, and even the typeface of the paperback copy I purchased.
Set in London in 1893, Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, 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 marches.

I couldn’t connect with the characters and didn't like or care about any of them and this generally isn't a problem for me in a novel, once the plot has enough suspense or mystery about it to keep me engaged and guessing. The Essex Serpent unfortunately didn't hold my attention and I didn’t find the plot engaging or entertaining. I did keep plodding along in the hope that it would improve for me but sadly by 200 pages I had enough. I consulted a friend who loved the book and she advised me if by this stage I wasn’t smitten or finding joy in the novel, it obviously wasn’t for me.

I did love the prose and the writing, it has an old world charm to it but that was all I could find about this book that is positive.

I have spent some time reading my friends reviews on the book and TBH I am jealous of their reactions to the story as so many have wonderful positive reviews written and hold this book in high esteem.
If a book fits wear it with pride, if not discard in the knowledge you tried
Profile Image for Peter.
503 reviews608 followers
February 9, 2017
"STRANGE NEWS, they'd say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons..."

I know I'm going to love a book when I find myself growing very fond of the characters early on. A mere fifty pages into this engrossing story, I was absolutely charmed by the most captivating of casts and wanted to know everything about them. And on the final page, I felt utterly bereft as I bid them farewell.

Cora Seaborne is the beating heart of this novel. Recently widowed from a loveless marriage, she revels in her newfound freedom. The owner of a sharp and inquisitive mind, she becomes intrigued by reports of the eponymous serpent, a mysterious beast which has allegedly terrorised the Essex countryside. Accompanied by her unusual son Francis and stern but loyal companion Martha, she moves to the village of Aldwinter to investigate the existence of the monster. There she meets Reverend William Ransome, the rational, well-educated vicar who is exasperated by the effects of the mythical creature on his frightened congregation. Cora is also visited by the impish Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is openly in love with her, and George Spencer, his good-natured, wealthy colleague who has an eye on Martha.

The mystery of the serpent's existence is one of the most compelling aspects of this gripping tale but the many love triangles which abound are even more enthralling. Chief among these is the will-they-won't-they relationship between Will and Cora. Married to the luminous Stella and father to three wonderful children, surely the Reverend wouldn't throw it all away for a woman he has only just met? And yet what began as a battle of wits has developed into something more - he can't deny his feelings for her. Cora in turn, relishes their time together and this indisputable attraction torments them both.

What impressed me most about this stunning book is the depth of characterisation. Perry imagines the lives of the entire cast so extensively that the fully-formed characters leap from the page. Cora Seaborne is an unforgettable heroine - independent, witty and fiercely intelligent, I developed quite the crush on her myself. Not only does Perry write exquisitely about nature and life in the Victorian era, she packs more insight about human behaviour and relationships into this sumptuous story than every other book I've read this year combined. I can't recommend this magnificent novel enough and I hope it wins every literary prize on offer.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews651 followers
January 9, 2018

Something Severed, and Something Joined
Then it carried me in spate to the Essex shore, to all the marsh and shingle, and I tasted on my lips the salt air which is also like the flesh of oysters, and I felt my heart cleaving, as I felt it there in the dark wood on the green stair and as I feel it now: something severed, and something joined.
This is from a letter written near the end of this miracle of a novel by its heroine, a young widow named Cora Seaborne. It is an extension of her earlier remark about the diametrically opposite meanings of the word cleave: to cleave to something, to be cleft from something. She has a specific context: her feelings for a man whose views are often utterly opposed to her own, who is unavailable to her, yet whom she cannot live without. But it might well be a phrase that Sarah Perry had pinned to her wall while writing. Starting off like a period romance (the year is 1893), her novel continually surprises the reader with its emotional twists and turns, and its avoidance of formulaic outcomes; the bonds are not formed easily. It is a remarkably Protean book, containing a wide range of characters and ideas. The separation of people, places, and beliefs is a kind of leitmotif; the miracle is that Perry nonetheless manages to unite them all into a balanced and deeply satisfying whole.
He drew in a breath and all the seasons were in it: spring greenness in the grass, and somewhere a dog-rose blooming; the secretive scene of fungus clinging to the oak, and underneath it all something sharper waiting in a promise of winter.
One unifying factor is the book's structure, told month-by-month over the course of almost a full year. And anchored to the same place: the southeast coast of Essex, where the Blackwater River flows through woodlands and then out over desolate salt flats to the sea. Each month begins with a passage of nature writing deeply rooted in the great British pastoral tradition, but clearly written by someone who has lived in this landscape from childhood on; children's discoveries in fact play a significant part in the novel. Each of these chapters then continues with a bird's-eye view of what each of the main characters is doing, in their various parts of Essex or in distant London. The author has a second way to punctuate the detailed narrative of the intervening chapters: through the inclusion of letters. In other hands, this device might be a bore, but Perry has both a perfect feel for late-19th-century epistolary style and a knack for using it to convey character. Here, for instance, is how the local vicar's wife ends her invitation to Cora for an overnight stay:
PS—As you see, I could not resist sending you a primrose, though I was too impatient to press it well, and it has stained the page. I never could learn to bide my time! S.
By such natural means—the oneness of nature and the warmth of human connection between her many characters—Sarah Perry draws the many disparate elements in her story together.

And the lines of cleavage? Between science and superstition, religion and rationalism, socialism and the status quo. Cora has two principal male friends, very different. One is Luke Garrett, a socially awkward but pioneering surgeon. The other is Will Ransome, Vicar of Aldwinter, the Essex estuary town to which Cora retires after the death of her abusive politician husband. She herself is more scientist than theologian, going out at all hours to hunt for fossils in the alluvial mud. Her son Francis, who would nowadays be considered on the spectrum, takes this collecting mania still further. Her companion Martha, Francis's former nurse, develops as a social activist, enlisting Cora's political connections to address the scandal of housing for the poor in London. Reverend Ransome, whose job involves the social welfare of his parishioners, though he is not closed to modern thought, takes a Bible-based approach. He is one of the most sympathetic (because complex and believable) portraits of a clergyman I have seen for some time, and his lovely but ailing wife Stella is more beautiful still.

Which brings me to the title. Perry encountered the Essex Serpent in a 17th-century pamphlet entitled Strange News out of Essex. It was thought to be some huge eel-like beast with wings, beak, and claws, that would surface out of the muddy Blackwater, blight the crops, and carry off unwary animals and children. In Perry's reincarnation, it still has the power to terrify even at the end of the 19th century. Cora, as a true Darwinist, hopes to prove that it is some vanished species. Will Ransome is sure that it must have some rational explanation, but he cannot deny the growing fear that grips his flock. His wife Stella sees it as a personal angel messenger, while Cora's son Francis merely observes the growing unease around him and keeps his own counsel. The Essex Serpent is a fictional notion only, but it serves as the nexus of a web of human reactions and interactions that are very real.

And very moving. This is my best book of the year so far.


My Top Ten list this year is selected from a smaller than usual pool. I really only started reading again in May, and even then deliberately kept new books to under 50% of my total. In compiling the list, I also did not exactly follow my original star ratings, but rather the takeaway value after time has passed. In particular, there are two books, Lincoln in the Bardo and Go, Went, Gone) to which I gave only 4 stars, but which I recognize as important books, with more staying power than many that I enjoyed more at the time, but have since forgotten.

For some reason, three of the ten books (Forest Dark, A Horse Walks into a Bar, and Three Floors Up) are by Jewish authors, set in Israel. To those, I would add a fourth: Judas by Amos Oz, read at the same time and of similar quality, but actually published at the end of 2016.

The ten titles below are in descending order (i.e. with The Essex Serpent being my favorite). The links are to my reviews:

1. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
2. Autumn by Ali Smith
3. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
4. The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
5. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
6. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
7. Exit West by Moshin Hamid
8. Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo
9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
10. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

And half that number again that didn't quite make it, in alphabetical order by authors:

11. Souvenirs dormants by Patrick Modiano
12. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
13. Improvement by Joan Silber
14. Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
15. Rose & Poe by Jack Todd
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews934 followers
September 2, 2017
A completely unexpected treasure! This has everything I look for in a book - lovely writing that you can get lost in, rich dialogue, memorable and lively characters, an imaginative and unusual plot and tons of atmosphere. Goodness! Read this!!
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,322 reviews2,142 followers
May 6, 2023
A beautiful cover on a beautiful book. The author writes so well it would be a pleasure to read even if there were no story and the characters were boring, which is far from the case.

The main character, Cora, is recently widowed and free at last from a controlling man. Our sympathies are with her at first, but in her first flush of freedom she becomes very careless with other people's emotions and causes many problems along the way. Another very interesting character is Luke Garret, a promising surgeon and one of the people in love with Cora. William Ransome is the other half of the main love story in the book and I actually found him very hard to care for at all.

The author uses the characters of Cora and Will to illustrate the battle between science and religion, and as personalities they attract and repel each other in equal amounts. It was difficult to see that they could ever be happy together. Basically nearly every one in the book is in love with the wrong person and in the end friendship is the only winner for them all.

This is a book you read to enjoy the beauty of its prose, but it also provides plenty to think about after you have reached the last page.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews338 followers
August 2, 2017
The Essex Serpent is a beautifully written work of historical fiction, absolutely immersing you in 1890s Victorian England, and has a fantastic cast of characters whose attitudes, ideas, and actions are the best parts of the novel. Though I found the plot itself could have been a bit tighter and my attention would occasionally wane during some of the subplot portions, and it may not have engaged me as much emotionally as it did in spades intellectually, this is overall an absorbing, interesting read and is memorable for its striking protagonists, its authentic, haunting atmosphere and its gorgeous prose. I did alternate between savoring the writing and pushing forward to see what was slowly unfolding, which is a mark of a book that has captured me. It's probably 4.5 stars but rounded down to 4 stars as I really liked it and would recommend it but wasn't completely carried away with enthusiasm or affection for it as a whole.

'Sometimes I think I sold my soul, so that I could live as I must. Oh I don't mean without morals or conscience - I mean only with the freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that...' Frowning, she ran her thumb along the serpent's spine and said, 'I've never said this before, not to anyone, though I've meant to: but yes, I've sold my soul, though I'm afraid it didn't fetch too high a price. I had faith, the sort I think you might be born with, but I've seen what it does and I traded it in. It's a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad - to turn your back of everything new and wonderful - to see that there's no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!'

Cora Seaborne is our protagonist, the above some her dialogue. At the opening of the novel, Cora is just entering widowhood, for her a very freeing, welcome change rather than be the thrall of an abusive husband, "mounted on a plinth" as she refers to her state. Cora has a sparkling wit, abundance of intellectual curiosity, an easy familiarity with her friends, and a depth of feeling and emotion surging forth, the dam of her husband's cruelty and isolation broken. While she has a dear companion, Martha, in whom she counts on for care of her odd, emotionally detached son Francis, and good friends like Dr Luke Garrett, "the Imp" a surgeon bold in ideas and actions and secretly in love with Cora, she is not connected to anyone by spirit and mind and body in a way that one recognizes a true friend, love, equal.

And how else to account for the longing I have for you? Cora, I was content. I had come to the end of everything new - I had no more surprises in store, and I never sought any. I was serving my purpose. And there you were - and from your hair which is never tidy to your man's clothes, I've never liked the look of you (do you mind?). But I seem to have learned you by heart, seemed at once to know you, had immediate liberty to say everything to you I could never have said elsewhere - and all this is to me the 'substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen'! Ought I to be ashamed, or troubled? I am not. I refuse to be.
How do you like that, you rank atheist, you apostate? You have driven me to God.

Enter Will Ransome, the Rector of Aldwinter Parish, a keen intellect and a deep faith in an Enlightenment influenced version of God. With his regular flock of Essex folk and his family - beautiful, vivacious but frail wife Stella, driven and intelligent daughter Joanna and two young sons - Will has a full load and world already. But Cora's arrival in Aldwinter, coupled with the resurgence of the mysterious Essex Serpent, a near mythical beast rumored to be responsible for some strange deaths and calamitous events and moods in the area, explodes Will's small world. His conversations with Cora and their interactions with others in Essex and London mirror larger forces contrasting and colliding in the late Victorian era: science and religion, faith and doubt, even the old schemes of aristocracy and lower classes being confronted with a demand for upward mobility and decency from the lower classes. We see the main characters forced to reckon with these shifts in collective understanding and being able to hold seemingly opposed ideas at once, all the while trying to enjoy, understand, then repress the increasing depths of their affection for each other.

I won't spoil more about the plot itself, since it is all very well wound together. Perry does a nice job tying her various subplots together, though I didn't care for all of them with equal weight - more time with Stella and her deteriorating condition would have been welcome, as well as more time with Garrett and Spencer and their adventures on the fringes of new medicine, while perhaps less time with Martha's socialist views and plight of the worker and unusual romantic relationship. But overall the characters spark off one another and move the whole inexorably forward, and Perry's sense of place and especially time are extremely detailed and beautifully rendered. For those who like a character focused, questioning novel, this work of historical fiction is likely for you: a bit slow moving plot wise, but the intellect and emotions of our characters keep things humming along and eager to learn what's next, while the atmospheric prose entertains and paints the scene with turns of phrase to savor. I didn't fall in love with this book emotionally, but I was stimulated by and appreciated so many of its elements and ultimately the sum of its parts.
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,647 followers
November 17, 2018
The prologue to this book had the strong rhythms of poetry and music. It was a great opening, although I did find myself caught up in the beats and rhymes and almost-rhymes so I had to go back and read it again for its sense. It was hard to un-hear and un-feel the poetry and galloping rhythm, though.

I have read a few books where repetition has enhanced the book in subtle and sometimes courageous ways. However, two that distracted me in this novel felt more like mistakes – although I could be wrong. One was the repetition of the descriptor, “noble suffering”. Two different men expressed it (one sardonically) in two different places. I could pose a case where “noble suffering” more aptly described one of the female main characters in this novel, and perhaps a couple of the other male characters, too.

The other repetition I noticed occurred three times with three different characters – all three reflected how they took for granted someone in their life due to them “always being there”. We all take things for granted at some time or another. It is part of the human condition. We take people for granted sometimes, too, and that’s usually when life throws us a curve-ball and we wake up to gratitude once again.

For me, the theme in this novel that stood out strongest is how fears can feed on themselves and then begin to expand exponentially. In this story we see an entire village nearly immobilized by fear and its contagion even affected those whose reason and/or beliefs discarded that fear.

Perhaps it is because in our own time we can see fear’s toxic effect on entire cities – even countries – and we have witnessed how it has spread like a plague. Fear has a strong element of projection behind it. In many cases it is the inner monsters people are too weak-willed to acknowledge and conquer that get projected into the outer world, blown up into huge proportions, and are used as weapons handed out to like-minded people and used to batter unsuspecting innocents.

In this book, during the late 1800’s, the fear is largely turned inward. So we have a village turned in upon itself until one woman arrives on a mission of discovery and with her she brings an intelligent innocence that is both honed and peeled away then reassembled into new and interesting forms.

This is a well-written and interesting perspective of a time that is plentifully represented in historical novels. It was a fascinating time of striving and change in so many areas of life and this novel offers a fresh view of many aspects of it. I found the characters interesting and, for the most part, quite different in personalities and how they perceived this world that was becoming.

I recommend this to everyone who enjoys historical fiction where past and present collide, combust, and create the beginnings of a more progressive (for the most part) world.
Profile Image for Penny.
331 reviews86 followers
July 21, 2016
I liked this novel quite a lot, but I didn't love it and I somehow felt a bit disappointed about that. The glowing reviews had made me expect more.
It started off really strongly, but by the time I was past the half way mark I started to feel restless and to plan what I'd read next. Not a good sign!
I liked the depiction of the Blackwater Estuary, an area I know well from living near Maldon for several years. It's a good choice of setting as even now it can be bleak and eerie on a winter's day.
The sense of place was definitely the strongest part of the book.
The characters were well drawn although on several occasions the dialogue was a whisper away from becoming unconvincing and far too 'modern'. Was the Underground really known as 'the Tube' that far back? More than a little pretentious in places too.
However I feel Perry clearly has a lot of talent and I'll keep a look out for her future work.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,299 reviews450 followers
November 8, 2017
This novel is classified in my mind as "A damn good read". Set in Victorian England in the 1890's, it juxtaposes religion, superstition, and science in equal measure, and makes you believe in all of them at the same time. A little bit of Dickens mixed with Wilkie Collins mixed with Sarah Waters, it combines beautiful writing with great characters, a setting both lovely and sinister, and ideas and emotions that are foreign and familiar at the same time. I recommend The Essex Serpent for anyone who wants to get lost in a book for a few days.
Profile Image for Geo Marcovici.
1,285 reviews299 followers
May 18, 2018
Translation widget on the blog!!!
O poveste interesantă despre libertatea unei femei scăpate din jugul unui soț abuziv. Despre zborul acesteia spre lumea larga. Un roman despre autocunoaștere, despre viața de zi cu zi și despre oameni și locuri ce influențează destine!
Recenzia mea completă o găsiți aici:
Profile Image for Issicratea.
213 reviews378 followers
September 26, 2017
I can see why The Essex Serpent would make publishers’ eyes light up. It’s a rich old fruity Dickensian plum pudding of a novel, full of generous dollops of Victorian-novel-of-ideas ingredients (Darwinism and the rise of science vs faith; early Marxism; early feminism), mixed together—if I haven’t overstretched the culinary metaphor already—in a highly digestible form.

If this sounds faintly sardonic, it may be the result of disappointment. At the outset, I thought Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel was shaping up to deliver more than it eventually did. The premise is attractive: a not-so-grieving widow, smitten with fossil-hunting fever, making her way to rural Essex and hearing mysterious rumors of sea serpent sightings in a remote village on the coast. I loved the offbeat setting: the invented village of Aldwinter on the equally evocatively named—and real—Blackwater Estuary, a flat, liminal land of saltmarshes, where land and sea seep into one another, and the relationship between reason and superstition can seem similarly blurred.

Another thing going for the book is the quality of the writing. Some scenes remain graphically in my mind at a month’s distance. Here is the half-crazed old widower Cracknell hanging out skinned voles as scarecrows to keep the Essex serpent at bay

… their hides hung from their hindquarters like a shadow. Their pale paws, so like the hands of children, reached blindly for the earth.

Here is London physician George Spencer watching his friend Luke Garrett trying out a spot of pioneering heart surgery:

‘”We’re so tightly packed,” thought Spencer, marveling as always at how bright and beautiful it was. The marbling of red and purplish-blue, and the scant deposits of yellow fat: they were not the colours of nature. Once or twice the muscles all around the opening flexed slowly, like a mouth arrested in a yawn.

So, why the disappointment? I think the plot began to sag a little half-way through, as if Perry wasn't really sure where she had been meaning to take things. By the end the narrative had become episodic, and any tension had completely dissolved. The “ideas” element doesn’t ever take off, either. We have a lot of predictable debate on faith vs reason between the widow protagonist Cora Seaborne and her will-they-won’t-they married vicar love interest, William Ransome, but it’s all rather boilerplate and not particularly well meshed with the plot.

Whether you enjoy The Essex Serpent will probably rest ultimately on how you respond to the characters—and how high your sentimentality and whimsicality tolerance thresholds are set. There’s rather a lot of both towards the end.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
815 reviews617 followers
May 20, 2018

Well... I loved the cover.In fact one of the most beautiful covers I've ever seen. The contents...not so much.

Set in Victorian England, Ms Perry's writing is so beautiful, so elegant but she couldn't make me care about her heroine, Cora, an abused wife freed by becoming a widow. Cora and her (probably on the spectrum) son Francis move to a village in Essex where she becomes fascinated by the legendary Essex Serpent.

Every time I wanted to give up on this book, the writing would draw me back in. Then the writing would lose me again. I was often bored and I will admit to skimming. Lots of my Goodreads friends loved this one, but I found it soulless, except when either Cora's admirer Luke or her dying friend Stella were centre stage.

Profile Image for Laysee.
519 reviews250 followers
July 11, 2018
As book titles go, The Essex Serpent repulses me. Anything that has scales on its body, slithers and crawls on its belly, scares the daylights out of me. Yet, for one week, I camped by the Blackwater estuary in fictional Aldwinter, wrapped up in the foggy mystery of a serpentine creature that is alleged to be terrorizing the inhabitants of an Essex village. The monstrous serpent in question has dragon wings and eyes like a sheep – a formidable beast. It lures men and animals to their death; it triggers the strange blue light in the sky; it unleashes a fit of hysteria amongst a class of school children. But there is more than one dreaded serpent. Sarah Perry wove a fantastical Victorian tale that is rich in symbolism.

Read The Essex Serpent. It is the Kirkus Review Best Book of 2017, a Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction, and Winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year. A remarkable achievement and well deserved for a novel that is intellectually and emotionally satisfying all the way to its down-to-earth ending.
Profile Image for Helene Jeppesen.
688 reviews3,626 followers
August 14, 2016
4.5/5 stars.
What a beautiful novel! On the outside as well as on the inside.
For some strange reason, I though that this was going to be a really dense book to get through. I imagined that it would be written in an intricate language and that the magical realism would be hard to follow. However, I'm now happy to say that that was not at all the case. In fact, the language was beautiful, and the dialogue was easy to follow. I'm not entirely sure you would apply the term 'magical realism' to this novel, but whatever was happening turned out to be very intriguing because it was so mysterious.
What I loved the most about "The Essex Serpent", however, was the descriptions of the nature of Essex. I could feel the mud under my feet and hear the lake and the wind in the background while reading; that's a thing that Sarah Perry does really well.
I also really liked how the main part of this book is written from a third person narrator, however it is interspersed with personal letters that give you an honest account of the individuals' thoughts and feelings. And those thoughts and feelings become quite uncanny and mysterious as the novel moves on, which gives the story and eerie feeling. It was almost like it was written in the Victorian era even though it is a modern release.
Read it! Also even though you're not sure it's going to be something for you. Maybe you'll be surprised :)
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews540 followers
April 5, 2017
Random notes while reading:

- I just love the ambiance of this book!

- Mmmm... do we have a curmudgeon on our hands? Reverend William Ransome, Rector of Aldwinter Parish forbids his children entry to his study; escapes by window when they're at the door; threatens them with bread and water when they're disobedient; detest the pagan celebration of an old shipwreck by the children of the town; "Aside from the church’s curiosities – which were in truth a minor embarrassment to each successive incumbent – the only item of interest within five miles was the blackened hull of the Leviathan, a clipper which could be seen when the Blackwater estuary lay at low tide, and which the village children decorated each harvest in a kind of pagan rite of which he dutifully disapproved".

And now he had to face the widow Cora Seaborne.
It was not precisely that newcomers were unwelcome, but one or two phrases (society women … masculine intelligence …) were calculated to trouble any diligent minister of the church. He could picture her as precisely as if her photograph had been included in the envelope: entering the lonely final stages of life bolstered by yards of taffeta and a half-baked enthusiasm for the new sciences. Her son was doubtless down from Oxford or Cambridge, and would bring with him some secret vice which would either thrill Colchester, or make him completely unsuited to civilised company. She probably lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and vinegar, hoping Byron’s diet might improve her silhouette, and would almost certainly have Anglo-Catholic tendencies, and deplore the absence of an ornate cross on the All Saints altar. In the space of five minutes he furnished her with an obnoxious lap-dog, a toadying companion with no flesh on her bones, and a squint.
- And then there's the monster- in the River Blackwater-that has everybody up in arms. He felt it a failing of his that his parish could have succumbed to such godless superstition.

Ohhh, he is so in for a surprise! And no, he's actually just a bit cornered by his own choices. Vulnerable. Mmmmm ...

- so delightfully descriptive. This is a slow, concentrated read. The mind dare not wander. Quite long paragraphs! - phew.

- Well, what do you know... Cora (Persephone) was the name of Greek Goddess. Agriculture, Spring, Underworld - her portfolios on earth. Suddenly there's another angle to the tale. The story gets deeper and and more intriguing. Wikipedia explains her origin as this: In Greek mythology, Persephone , also called Kore ("the maiden") or Cora, is the daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter, and is the queen of the underworld. Homer describes her as the formidable, venerable majestic princess of the underworld, who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead.

- Ok, we get the drift, the serpent of Essex is getting more spiritual than physical. It depends if you are one of those people who prefer to look up (Reverend William Ransome), or down(Cora Seaborne), searching for solutions to challenges. Oh the pathos and drama!

- What the eyes see, and the mind interprets are quite two different things for the inhabitants of Aldwinter. There's all the horse shoes hanging from the branches of Traitor’s Oak; and the monster lurking in the water. The Essex Serpent was sunning its thin wings on the shingle, snapping its beak, regurgitating a fragment of bone, the people said. There was the serpent in the church; the talk meandered over river, sea, land.
And then – voices lowered just a little – what about the Blackwater: had she heard? What about the man that drowned on New Year’s Day, and the animals found dead and the things they’d seen in the night? What about Cracknell, who’d gone mad now and sat up all night by Leviathan watching for the beast? Was something there and was it coming? Mr Caffyn saw the turn the morning had taken, and tried his best to turn it back. He said, ‘Now girls, don’t trouble Mrs Seaborne with that nonsense,’ and scrubbed out the ammonite sketched on the blackboard behind.
- Will & Cora: They sharpen themselves on each other; each by turn is blade and whetstone.

Cora, the widow, with her manly clothes and men's boots, her unkempt hair, earth beneath her finger nails, and outspokenness. Her attachment to the soil. Her husband's passing was equally sad and joyous:

He would pave over every bit of woodland, have every sparrow mounted on a plinth. And he had me mounted on a plinth. My waist pinched, my hair burned into curls, the colour on my face painted out, then painted in again. And now I’m free to sink back into the earth if I like – to let myself grow over with moss and lichen. Perhaps you’re appalled to think we’re no higher than the animals – or at least, if we are, only one rung further up the ladder. But no, no – it has given me liberty. No other animal abides by rules – why then must we? 1890.

She put flesh on the Blackwater Terror, the folks whispered. She was the merry widow play Persephone with flowers in her hair, said Charles Ambrose. Her scent is always like the first rain of spring, said Catherine Ambrose. You rank atheist, you apostate. You have driven me to God, Will said in a letter to Cora.

- There was the bond between mothers and children. Was it creepy or natural.
What Martha later recalled most vividly of those last few fog-white days was this: William’s wife and Cora’s son, fit together like broken pieces soldered on the seam.

In the end, the eyes and mind got deceived, and the reader immensely enriched by the experience.

I read this book slowly. Took quite a few days. Enjoyed every single word. One of the really good reads this year.

An excellent literary novel. RECOMMENDED.
Profile Image for Beverly.
833 reviews313 followers
January 4, 2018
This reminded me so much of Oscar and Lucinda. That novel also charmed me with the two main characters who were so good, so decent yet were beset by the vagaries of life. Cora and Will are two such, decent, kind people thunder struck by their immediate attachment to each other, although Will is happily married and a parson. That sounds sordid, but nothing could be further from their minds.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
August 2, 2017
I was a little apprehensive about reading this because the plaudits it gained when published last year and its subsequent popularity made me suspect that it would disappoint. Such thoughts were groundless - within a few pages I was engrossed in this page-turner set in the 1890s. I should have known that Perry was a promising writer since I read her debut novel After Me Comes The Flood, which was memorably atmospheric if rather more elliptical.

The central characters of this book are Cora Seaborne, a young and independent-minded woman who is liberated by the death of her husband, and seeks an outlet in scientific research, inspired by the naturalist Mary Anning. The other is Will Ransome, a vicar whose parish on the Essex coast becomes obsessed with the idea that a fearsome sea monster is lurking in the salt marshes, who is a man of both strong faith and intelligence. The other characters are equally intriguing - Cora's friend Luke ("the Imp") is a talented surgeon, her companion Martha is a socialist determined to work to help improve the housing of London's poor, and Will's wife Stella whose mind is influenced by her tuberculosis and who develops strange obsessions of her own.

Perry's grasp of historical detail and the ideas behind these characters is impressive, and the book is a pleasure to read. Thanks to the 21st Century Literature group for choosing this as a group read for August.
Profile Image for Annette.
798 reviews382 followers
August 29, 2022
What interested me into this story was the time period of scientific advancement, and how love and friendship were tested during the time of rapid changes. Its main subject can be relevant to present time, believes vs facts.

Cora Seaborne was restricted by her husband. After his fatal illness, she has her chance to follow her passion for learning and exploration. Now, she can freely explore and be an amateur naturalist. When there are rumors of a returning Essex serpent, Cora explores the subject. But there is a pastor, who wants to put an end to superstition. There are tensions between faith and science. Their contrasting views offer an entertainment at times.

The story has well-developed characters who offer plenty of interesting and humorous dialogue. Also, involving a fascinating subject based on true events. However, I found the writing too descriptive, making the pace slow.
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