Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
“We think we know where we’re aiming, and perhaps we do - but morning comes, and a change in the light, and we find out we should’ve been trying in a different direction after all.”
The Essex Serpent has been on my TBR for a while; it was one of my books from my Unread Shelf post earlier this year, as well as on my Fall TBR list. I first heard about this sometime last year from Annie Jones of the Bookshelf on their From the Front Porch podcast. She raved about it. I picked up a copy from Avid Bookshop in Athens sometime last year because seriously, how gorgeous is this cover?! Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is an exploration of faith versus reason. A young widow, Cora Seaborne, moves to Essex with her son and companion. Cora is very interested in science and nature, and she strikes up a friendship with the local vicar, Will Ransome. Will and his wife, Stella, are happy and content in the little town of Aldwinter with their three children, though Cora cannot understand why Will is not in a bigger city having hyper-intellectual conversations with important people. At first, Cora and Will bond over their differing views on reason and faith, and what they think about the rumors of the ‘Essex serpent’, a creature terrorizing the local residents. However, the more time Cora and Will spend together, the greater the ramifications for everyone tied to the two of them.
The Essex Serpent is one of those books where there is plenty of plot, but that is not the main focus of the book. Yes, the ‘Essex serpent’ wreaks havoc on the villagers of Aldwinter, effecting everyone differently. But how everyone reacts to this situation is the bigger focus. Will refuses to believe there is a real threat and has to work hard to convince his congregation that this is not punishment for past sins. Cora is fascinated by these incidents and believes they could be evidence of a new creature, in which her discovery could propel her to become the latest famous naturalist. Most of the villagers believe they are being punished, while Cora, Will, and their friends are educated enough to know there must be something else going on. However, Cora and Will’s friendship is continually put to the test when Will believes his faith is better than reason, and Cora dismisses his beliefs.
This book took me a while to get into, but one I got about a quarter in, I was hooked. There are several characters where we get their perspectives, but Cora and Will are the main focus. While the story of the ‘Essex serpent’ is intriguing, I was much more interested in how Perry wrote about faith and reason. Her portrayal of Will and his faith and Cora and her reason was fascinating to read; it made me think about my own views and how much faith plays a part in my outlook on life. Granted, The Essex Serpent takes place in the 1890s, so I have the benefit of a century’s worth of discovery and science, but faith still remains a big part of my life.
There are so many lovely secondary characters in The Essex Serpent. My favorites were Martha, Cora’s companion and Francis’ nanny, and Edward, a patient of Cora’s friend, Dr. Luke Garrett. Martha and Edward’s friendship is an interesting side plot. Martha is a very outspoken socialist and feminist and comes to Edward’s house to make sure he is recovering from surgery and not going to get evicted from his flat. Martha is especially an interesting character, when you contrast her with Will. I loved how Perry used different personality traits to further illustrate those who value faith versus those who value reason above all.
If you like historical fiction, you will enjoy The Essex Serpent, but even if you don’t read historical fiction, I think this is a book that most readers can appreciate. There is a little bit of mystery, a little bit of a love story, and enough of a plot to entice even the most discerning reader. I really enjoyed The Essex Serpent; I give it 4 stars.
What historical fiction novels are you reading lately?