The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, is set in 1893 and begins on New Year’s Eve on the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. It is a book that left me with a very distinct feeling whenever I put it down; a sensation that the past is not so very far behind us after all.
We meet Cora Seaborne, newly widowed with a son suffering from what would nowadays be diagnosed as autism, who retreats to a cottage in Aldwinter on the Essex marshes.
There she encounters rumours of the Essex Serpent, a creature of folklore who is said to have returned to the marshes, and a vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to dispel the hysteria that is taking over his parishioners.
It is an intriguing, dark, compulsive and alarming tale, with a Dickensian attention to every bleak detail.
“A murder, a monster, a love story and a heroine to rival the greats of 19th century literature collide to make this the most deeply satisfying of fiction,” according to the Waterstone’s review of it.
I admit I struggled with it at first, possibly because I was exhausted by the Easter holidays and found myself getting lost in the description and failing to connect with the narrative. After 100 or so pages, however, I was hooked – although perhaps I was being reeled in subconsciously from the beginning as I never once thought to give up on it.
The serpent is an uncomfortable, gothic presence that seems to lurk in the background, even in the scenes that take place in London.
Cora, meanwhile, a Mary Anning wannabe, is an irresistible heroine and her increasingly turbulent friendship with the married William Ransome– a clash of science and belief – is even more of a mystery than the serpent itself.
If you’re up for a historical novel which leaves you with a lot to think about, definitely one to take on your next holiday.
The Essex Serpent is available to buy on Amazon