1 August 2016

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

During one of those serendipitous moments in which something happens that doesn't amount to anything earth-crashing, but you're very happy about, I happened upon a book review in the Daily Telegraph.  The reviewer wrote that The Essex Serpent was the best new book she had read in years.  That's a hefty claim to make.  After looking up a few more reviews I whipped of an email to a colleague who orders books for the library, ordered a copy for myself, and then waited for the mail van.

Set in Victorian London, Sarah Perry makes quick work of getting the hairs on the back of your neck to tingle as a man full of drink after celebrating New Year's Eve stands at the bank of the Blackwater.  The very name already conjuring up a fearful image.  From the synopsis the reader knows that a rumour is circulating about a beast in the water.  Bodies wash up on shore with horrible injuries, children are snatched from boats.  Despite starting The Essex Serpent in the middle of the day it wasn't long before my knees were drawn up, a crease formed between my brows and if the phone rang it was going unanswered.

Cora Seaborne is recently widowed but when alone risks a slight smile as her husband was a cruel man.  During Michael Seaborne's illness Cora met Luke Garret, a doctor with advanced ideas and incredible skill.  The two form a strong friendship through their curiousity of things both scientific and natural, and stimulating conversation.  Cora eschews finery in favour of a man's tweed coat and boots made to wade through mud.  A large diamond on her hand belies the initial impression of someone in need.  Cora harbours no desire to be gazed at and treated like fine china.  Her son, Francis, who appears to have symptoms of autism, is kind but distant.  His nanny, Martha, is a strong socialist and there's little doubt that she's in love with, and very protective of, Cora.

When dear friends, Charles and Katherine Ambrose, learn that Cora means to satisfy her own thoughts and pursuits in her quest to discover more about fossils and a mysterious serpent, they suggest meeting the Ransomes.  William is a vicar who is as comfortable tramping around the wilderness as standing behind the pulpit.  His wife Stella seemingly grows more beautiful every day despite the tuberculosis that festers in her lungs.  I loved her obsession with all things blue.

'Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the wood of the polished table, and Stella's forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.' 

So who can resist scenes of Victorian London, experimental surgery in an age of discovery, tales of a terrifying beast slithering under the water, and several relationships fueled by letters with veiled references to romantic longing?  The forests of Essex and a murky estuary contribute to a vivid landscape that feels as though Perry has placed you in their midst.

One of the things that struck me about this story is that despite being set in the 1890s there's a modern feel about the writing.  It's far from being mired in the heavy fabrics, swirling fogs, and gaslight of a pastiche.  Some of the characters Perry has brought to life are forward thinkers and therefore modern for the age they're living in.

I loved this book.  It's the kind of reading experience you hope for every time you start a book but only comes along a few times a year....if you're lucky.  To sink into a story with the abandon you had as a child without deadlines, clock-watching, a job, or domestic responsibilities.  The Essex Serpent is a new favourite for its stellar writing and being a sheer delight.


14 comments:

  1. This is a timely post - I've just begun reading the book and am very glad to hear it's so good!

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    1. Now I'll be watching for your thoughts, Karen. I hope you like it...it was the right book at the right time for me and certainly ticked lots of boxes.

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  2. I knew that I had good reason to buy this book, and that it made such an impression with a puppy in the house is a wonderful testament to the talent of the author.

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    1. The hallmark of a good read, to be sure! Usually I will sail through a really good story but it was quite nice to have to slow down the pace with so many things to do once Kip was napping. I found it well worth the price of a brand spanking new book! Hope you do as well, Jane.

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  3. Hmmm... I think (in reading your post) that I just had one of those moments myself! :)

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    1. Excellent! You do make me laugh, Audrey!

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  4. I'd seen so much buzz about this that I ordered a copy and had it sent over from the UK pronto (it's not set to be released in the US til who knows when). I did start reading it, but quickly realized that it's, as you say, a story you want to sink in to so I am going to save it until I'm on vacation in Colorado in a few weeks. It sounds like a great vacation book!

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    1. And we're feeling as though we're on holiday in Arizona...it's been a very hot and dry summer in the greater Toronto area.
      Have a wonderful time while you're relaxing and don't forget to look up from your book every now and then!

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  5. Thank you for this great review. I can't resist any of the things you listed. I will be getting this book!

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    1. We do have similar taste in books, don't we. I am so envious of your deliveries from Heywood Hill, Sunday!
      I think you're going to enjoy this...and the cover art is gorgeous.

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  6. oh, I can tell how much you've loved this book and now I want to read it again when a moment ago I wasn't that fussed. I feel so undecided.

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    1. Right book, wrong mood perhaps? I hope so because not only is this story put together so well, it's fun too! Give it some time and then pull it out again. How about this as a read for October...grey skies, woodsmoke, and spooky things. What do you think?

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  7. I started this a couple of hours ago and only nagging pangs of hunger are making me put it down. Will have to be pasta, I need to get back to it!

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  8. Very nice review, i like your method to review The Essex serpent, thank you

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