The beautiful William Morris-y design gracing the cover of The Essex Serpent was what first sparked my interest in this book. It was also enough to attract the attention of two strangers who separately approached me to enquire what I was reading. On one of those occasions I ended up drawn into a long (but interesting) conversation about Victorian novels until, hey presto, lunchbreak was over and I was supposed to be back at my desk fifteen minutes ago. Ooops. But still, it’s nice the way a pretty book can bring strangers together.
On the face of it this book is everything I usually love: not-so-stuffy Victorians, a strong and intelligent female lead, tons of gothic drama and atmosphere, a mythical threat and a bit of social conscience. The leading lady, Cora Seabourne, is a young widow and amateur fossil hunter who heads to the marshy Essex countryside for some rest and relaxation following the death of her husband. Curiosity at the bizarre rumours of a winged serpent terrorising local fishermen attract her to the village of Aldwinter where she sparks up a friendship with the harassed local vicar William Ransome. The novel focuses partly on the hysteria and superstition arising from the supposed mythical beast but also on the effect that her rapport with Ramsome has on them both and those they love.
The setting, I think, is possibly the thing I enjoyed most about this book. I often find that I particularly warm to books with a strong sense of place so Perry’s haunting descriptions of the bleak, wintery marshes rang really true to me. It’s also the case that in books and in real life I’m naturally drawn to this kind of flat landscape myself (see: Waterworld, Great Expectations, The Nine Taylors…) so maybe I just felt quite at home in Aldwinter. It’s the perfect setting for a mythical beast dragging unsuspecting men fresh from the alehouse to their deaths beneath the waves. I also think it lends itself really well to a story like this one where tension and atmosphere are so important. Combined with Perry’s beautifully lyrical writing style this makes an eerie, almost otherworldly tale at times.
“Each was only second best and they wore each other like hand-me-down coats.”
I couldn’t help thinking that in the end, sadly, too much of The Essex Serpent was given over to the growing friendship between Cora and Ransome and as much as I enjoyed watching this unfold at the beginning I found it to be a bit of a distraction towards the end when the narrative tension should really have been at its height. I didn’t dislike either party particularly but it occurred to me afterwards that I found every other character more compelling and would have liked more of them instead. In the main, though, I think my problem is that I was just a bit disappointed that the serpent didn’t feature more prominently or that the answers to my many questions weren’t answered in the way I wanted them to be. It felt a little bit like a clever plot had been swept aside in favour of some romance and melodrama that weren’t enough on their own to keep the momentum going. I’d have liked a twist, a reveal, something, to keep me interested but it just wasn’t there.
This book hasn’t been relegated to the charity shop just yet; I think I enjoyed it enough to keep hold of it for now and it will look quite pretty on my shelves (when I find some space for it). I’ve since read Albert Camus’ The Plague – a 99p Oxfam shop find – and was struck by some of the similarities, and differences, between this and The Essex Serpent (although I’m aware that this isn’t a fair comparison to either author). I’m working on a short post on this now and should have something up here soon.