BOOK REVIEW: The Essex Serpent

THE ESSEX SERPENT

by Sarah Perry

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.


I did not fall in love with this book right away. It was one of those relationships where you keep asking: should I or shouldn’t I continue? But things change one muddy night in the marsh, and it’s not until then that this book gets moving at an interesting – albeit slow – pace. The themes of religion, science, superstition, and intrigue start to reveal themselves more clearly then, as do the characters. There is a lot to this story, and it’s a good one! But truth be told, I found the supporting characters much more interesting than the main ones. Forget Cora and Will – meh – pay attention to Francis, Martha, Naomi, and Stella. They are much more fun to follow! — Jen Payne