Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent


Generally when there’s a lot of hype around a book, I do get put off. Over the last ten months, I have heard nothing but praise for this book. I did buy a copy in December but I was going to wait until the fuss about The Essex Serpent dies. However it was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction so I decided to try it.


The actual Essex Serpent was a mythological beast who roamed the waters in Essex, terrorising people, but in the book this is purely a McGuffin. The real story of the book is one about gender. I am getting ahead of myself though.

It is 1893 and newly widowed Cora Seaborne, along with her ‘partner’ Martha and autistic (my diagnosis) son Francis, move to Essex in order to escape city life and unveil the myth of the Essex Serpent, which seems to have made a reappearance and is snatching people. In the process Cora gets caught in a complicated love triangle between a doctor and a vicar.

As I said this book focuses a lot on gender. Cora states that she does not like her body and dresses in masculine clothing and has a relationship with Martha. These traits make her an outcast in the Essex village of Aldwinter but she’s quite oblivious to that as the vicar, William Ransome falls in love with her, despite being a family man. Yet he questions Cora’s refusal to conform to her gender stereotypes. Martha is another character who questions gender but she makes a decision later on in the book which is quite surprising and puts an interesting spin on gender and rights.

Cora isn’t William’s only problem though as he knows that the Essex Serpent is just a myth but the residents of Aldwinter are thinking otherwise and are partaking in superstitious rituals, which he is trying to curb.

The other major plot is about the faith vs science conundrum, which is represented by William and the Dr. Luke Garrett and their relationship with each other. 1893 was a time when scientific discoveries were happening such as evolution and hypnosis. Dr. Garrett is a big fan but William considers it garbage, although he is well informed, so there this constant tension when the two characters meet.

The third plot is one that focuses on social class and worker’s rights and although not really integral to the story, it does deserve a mention.

So why did I like this story so much? for starters I thought the writing style was great. It’s terribly post post modern but it flows. The characters are excellent, To a certain extent it is unpredictable and I do like the dark undertones, with mentions of monsters and witchcraft. I also do like the fact that Perry kept the whole novel grounded in reality. There are also little allusions to water which I did find fun – Cora’s surname is Seaborne, another major character is called Stella which refers to Stella Maris – Star of the Sea. There are other treats like this buried in the narrative and those are the more obvious ones.

Do believe the hype.

This review was originally on Goodreads