The Essex Serpent– Sarah Perry
Anyone who visited Waterstones over the Christmas period of 2016 will recognise the beautiful cover of this book: An intricate William Morris style design of a green and gold snake interwoven with delicate vines and flowers. After reading it, I think the cover is the best thing about this book… And I bought a kindle version so I didn’t even benefit from that!
When I read a summary of the story I thought it was going to present the conflict between science and religion, which I thought would be particularly interesting given the historical period it was set. However, what the story actually follows is the relationship of widowed Cora and Vicar William whose wife is dying, there’s supposedly a monster lurking in the background which is killing off members of the town one by one and then there’s the other characters, Martha and Luke, and their relationships. Unfortunately for me, none of the characters were strongly developed enough or likeable enough for me to care about what happened to them. The narrative doesn’t follow one but weaves in and out of all of their lives and then is intersected further with letters between the chapters. This is an interesting structure which could work but I felt that it only served to make me feel more distant from them. Cora disappears from the narrative towards the end and what has happened to her is only brought to light through the letters. Seems to me like a lazy plot device!
I also found that although supposedly a work of historical fiction, I did not feel fully immersed in the period or believe that it was reflective of the time it’s set. The prose also felt like forced lyricism; sometimes phrases or scenes jumped out at me as faintly ridiculous. For example, the scene of Cora walking through the woods in the rain, ‘laughing into tree bark’ and letting out ‘shameless peals of laughter which startled the silent birds into speech’. I found descriptions of behaviour like this unrealistic and cringeworthy. There are mentions of ‘weeping’ characters sixteen times in the book (I found this out as I searched the word on my kindle after looking for a particular crying scene) and if there is one thing I DETEST in novels it is scenes of women constantly crying. It reinforces images of female ‘hysteria’ that women were said to suffer from during the Victorian period, which many would argue was nothing more than an attempt to silence women who would not conform to society’s gender stereotypes and standards.
The Essex Serpent is supposed to loom ominously in the background, but I never really felt that intrigued by it. Although there is one moment regarding the serpent which seems particularly poignant, in one of his letters William states, ‘I begin to see how it might have appeared to us in all its various guises, and that far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which would be possible to prove or disprove’. To me this wasn’t an observation just about the physical serpent, but actually stating that the serpent is a concept that appears differently to everyone; it’s existence, meaning and the significance placed upon it is entirely subjective. William also seems here to be grappling with ideas of ‘truth’ and the source of authority it is derived from. Whether it’s religious, where truth may lie in moral teachings, beliefs and stories, or in science, wherein truth can be studied and physically evidenced. The line neatly supposes that actually there are as many ‘truths’ as there are people and perhaps even different ‘truths’ simultaneously believed by one person. As ultimately, it is impossible to ‘prove or disprove’ the ultimate source of authority. This may be a complete over analysing of one line, but I am an ex English student and old habits die hard!
I have read loads of reviews on Goodreads from people that love this book, but I actually found it a struggle to finish! Have you read this book? What did you think?