The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A timeless story of love and friendship, set in the Blackwater estuary in the late 19th century. Touches of Dickensian squalor, Austenian female feistiness, mythical beasts, languid ailing beauties and strong social campaigners, a strange child or two, all set against the strange beauty of the Essex landscape. Sharply observed, but gently told.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: May 2016
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1781255445

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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2017

The Richard and Judy Book Club Summer 2017

British Book Awards: Fiction Book of the Year 2017

I confess to a bias… when I came across a reference to Sarah Perry's latest novel; I wanted to read it for two reasons only. She is a local writer, and the book is set in a place not too far away, but that I have yet to explore and which fascinates me: the Blackwater estuary in Essex. That's a place of the kind of wide open skies and mud creeks that you will find up much of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast as well, and a landscape type that probably only appeals to a certain type of person.

This is another way of saying that I had paid little enough thought about the nature of the book itself to be approaching it almost blind. Sometimes that's the best way. Naturally, as a reviewer, I shouldn't say this, but every now and again, isn't it wonderful to read a book about which you have barely the faintest notion and absolutely no preconceptions? It is a risk, to be sure, but in this case it paid off.

Regular readers of my reviews will know that a bugbear of mine is the blurb. Too many publishers give away too much story. Serpent's Tail have got it right on this one. Little enough is given away to browsers…but the first comment there on the back cover might tempt you in. Quoting John Burnside, it begins Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel, I wonder if it would have surpassed the Essex Serpent…

Just in case you're thinking that maybe one or other of those great authors already did write the great Victorian novel (which is hard to deny but impossible to choose), then let me add into the mix a little anachronistic Jane Austen.

We have in these pages Dickens' social observation and political point-making, Stoker's imagination for the macabre, one might argue that in places there's a tiny touch of Lawrence's earthy but restrained sexuality, but what holds it all together is the characterisation of the heroine (if such we may call her) and a Austen-like genteel satire of the unfortunate way the world works and a woman's ability to say 'so what'?

It's 1893 and Cora Seaborne watches her husband die. There's nothing suspicious in his death, except maybe that no-one cared enough to try to save him, but for Cora it is the start of a widowhood that she welcomes with barely-contained joy. She takes her strange compulsive obsessive son, Francis, and her maid/companion Martha, to Colchester - and thence by invitation of a friend of a friend out to the estuary at Aldwinter. She goes in search of freedom, and fossils.

She chances upon Aldwinter just as it is falling into thrall of the rumour of the return of the Essex Serpent. This mythical beast - imagine a murderous Loch Ness monster - is believed to have been raised from its slumbers by an earthquake a few years before, and is now roaming the shores of the estuary again. The local vicar is fighting a losing battle against such fanciful superstition, and is helped little by the strange woman from London who, on the contrary, thinks it might be a prehistoric survivor, nothing more than an undiscovered species.

Despite the Bram Stoker allusion, this isn't a horror story of any kind. It's an entwined love story, laced through a reflection of the shortcomings of Victorian London, which – if you're paying attention – might just hit a little close to home in these early years of the 21st century. The slums are not the same, but maybe their landlords aren't that different was one of the thoughts that crossed my mind in reading of Martha's passion for solving the problems of the poor.

It is also a beautiful homage to the landscape of the Blackwater – its inherent loneliness and weirdness – and to its people who are also a little 'apart' from city-dwellers in their view of the world and what matters.

The love story is not one, but several. Think not of a triangle but maybe of a pentacle connecting Cora, Martha, the Reverend Will, the Imp (as Cora christens the physically imperfect but leading surgeon Dr Luke Garret) and his student - and steadfast friend Spencer. Place spinning in the middle of it Will's ailing wife, his daughter and her much-love, easily discarded school-friend, Cora's son Frankie. Surround it with those who stand by to pick up the pieces, showing love of another kind again.

It's also a book about freedom, particularly female freedom – striven for by some, simply taken by others.

It's a meticulously researched piece and whilst some of the facts could have been left aside, or merely hinted at rather than exposed, the book wears its history lighter than many I've read. It does so, perhaps, because the author's voice is finely judged. I'm sure the linguistic experts will pore through and highlight the neologisms that don't quite fit, but for this reader, the tone is pitch-perfect. This isn't just a book set in a particular place and time; it is one that could have been written then.

If you like your literature gentle but sharp – you will love this.

For a real-life love story from the Victorian age we can recommend Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay, or for more modern goings on the backlands of Essex check out the works of David Thorne David Thorne.

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