If the first book that one reads in a year is an indication of what’s to come, then 2017 should be a corker. Sarah Perry’s ‘The Essex Serpent‘, which I had the pleasure of finishing earlier this week, is a beautifully written, skillfully paced novel that contains all facets of life within it’s pages.
Set in the 1890s and moving between the oppressive streets of Victorian London and the desolate marshes of the Essex village of Aldwinter ‘The Essex Serpent’ is, at its heart, a novel about the meeting of two minds and a shared kinship too complex to define merely as love. For Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist, recently widowed and relishing freedom from an oppressive marriage; news that the mythical Essex Serpent may once again be abroad provide her with chance to test her skills in the pursuit of a new species. For William Ransome, vicar of Aldwinter, rumours of the beast bring only moral panic and uncertainty and a deviation from the certainties of faith. As Cora and her band of faithful followers descend on Aldwinter, she and Will discover a connection unlike any other as they are inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
It is safe to say I adored this novel, although I have to admit to not being initially convinced as to its merits. For the first 50 pages or so, I felt there were too many characters, all apparently with only the flimsiest connection between them, and that the novel lacked a driving force behind the plot. The sheer quality of the writing kept me reading, with Perry’s luscious prose bringing Victorian England vividly to life, painting pictures with words that allowed me to imagine the grimy slums of the London slums, the stifling atmosphere of a house in mourning and the clear, sparse beauty of the Essex salt marshes. Before I knew it, Perry had drawn me into her world so skillfully and allowed her characters to live so vividly that the slightness of the plot itself was incidental.
For this is not, I feel, a plot heavy novel. Which could, in less skilled hands, make reading over 400 pages a chore. What Perry does so masterfully however is to invest her effort into character and human connection. The novel lives as real lives are lived – in the small details of human interaction and the many facets of emotion that make up the lived experience of every day life. Cora, Will and those around them are bought to life with a vivacity that is to be applauded. By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew these people, even if I did not quite always understand them. From their many fine qualities to their flaws, each character lived and breathed on the page from Cora and Will themselves to more minor characters such as the gentle, charming Charles Ambrose or confused teenager Naomi Banks. 400 pages flew by when I was reading and I had to make sure I only picked up the book when I had time to devour it in gulps, so involved did I become when reading it! I even picked it up in the mornings to read for half an hour before work, a rarity for me as I usually prefer to settle down with the morning news and indulge in a second cup of tea.
I usually like to provide some comparisons within my review to guide those readers who might still be uncertain as to whether they might enjoy it. This is difficult with ‘The Essex Serpent’ however as it is rather unlike anything else I have read. Although a historical novel, to say only fans of historical novels would enjoy it is to deny it readers because the human interactions within its pages feel modern and relevant to today. There is, I think, a blending of fable and reality that reminds me a little of Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful ‘The Snow Child‘, and something in the vividly sharp prose that reminds me of Cecilia Ekbäck‘s ‘Wolf Winter‘, which I read and reviewed last year and was one of my Books of the Year 2016. There’s also a level of introspection and reflection of character that reminded me of Ian McGuire’s ‘The North Water‘, another one of my favourite books of 2016.
Instead of trying to draw comparisons, maybe all I can say in summary of ‘The Essex Serpent’ is that from friendship to desire, faith to scepticism via love in all its many complicated forms, this is a novel whose characters feel real and that will make the reader feel deeply and therefore I urge you to read it. Until next time….
‘The Essex Serpent‘ is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available now from all good booksellers.
NB: The novel has recently been awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year for (2016) – and has been reissued with a gorgeous blue cover for the occasion (see above) and was also nominee for the Costa Book Award (2016).