Soon to be an Apple TV series starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston
THE SUNDAY TIMES NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER
Overall Book of the Year and Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards 2017 (Nibbies)
Longlisted for the 2017 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
The Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
Shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award
London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne's controlling husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Along with her son Francis - a curious, obsessive boy - she leaves town for Essex, in the hope that fresh air and open space will provide refuge.
On arrival, rumours reach them that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for superstition, is enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a yet-undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter's vicar, who is also deeply suspicious of the rumours, but thinks they are a distraction from true faith.
As he tries to calm his parishioners, Will and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves at once drawn together and torn apart, affecting each other in ways that surprise them both.
The Essex Serpent is a celebration of love, and the many different shapes it can take.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
An iBooks Best of 2016 selection. We're thrilled to name Sarah Perry's deeply evocative and deliciously chilling second novel our Book of the Year for 2016. We’ve been huge fans of Perry ever since her bold, unsettling debut, After Me Comes the Flood, and The Essex Serpent doesn't disappoint. Set in the 1890s, it’s a gloriously gothic tale that focuses on the budding romance between a self-assured young widow and the local vicar. Our imaginations ran haywire trying to second-guess who or what could be behind the mysterious, murderous creature plaguing the marshland around Essex. Most of all, we adored Perry’s languid, dreamlike prose, which swept us off to Victorian England.
In Perry's (After Me Comes the Flood) excellent second novel, set in the Victorian era, recent widow Cora Seaborne leaves London with her 11-year-old son, Francis, and loyal companion, Martha, and goes to Colchester, where a legendary, fearsome creature called the Essex Serpent has been sighted. Scholarly Cora, who is more interested in the study of nature than in womanly matters of dress, tramps about in a man's tweed coat, determined to find proof of this creature's existence. Through friends, she is introduced to William Ransome, the local reverend; his devoted wife, Stella; and their three children. Cora looks for a scientific rationale for the Essex Serpent, while Ransome dismisses it as superstition. This puts them at odds with one another, but, strangely, also acts as a powerful source of attraction between them. When Cora is visited by her late husband's physician, Luke Garrett, who carries a not-so-secret torch for her, a love triangle of sorts is formed. In the end, a fatal illness, a knife-wielding maniac, and a fated union with the Essex Serpent will dictate the ultimate happiness of these characters. Like John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, whose Lyme Regis setting gets a shout-out here, this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay. Cora makes for a fiercely independent heroine around whom all the other characters orbit.
A Spiritual Dilemma?
Benevolent humanist Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent is mystifying. Here we have an author seeking friendship with all of her characters, although revealing their dark and dangerous personality traits. A science versus religion debate where there's an almost unthinkable ethical contradiction that seems inappropriate. And a personal attitude that starts hopeful and ends in pessimism. But through it all, there is an exquisite use of words and descriptions and arguments that you'd expect from a Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing, one that holds your attention and keeps you wanting for more. Suppose Cora Seaborne, the protagonist, is not your conservative Victorian widow. In that case, neither is William Ransome, your orthodox provincial rector, the two coming together with incongruous views on an ophidian folktale coming to life and threatening the peace of the Blackwater estuary. Cora, the educated feminist, coveting scientific fact to local sightings, and William, seeking to protect his flock from witchcraft and heresy, miraculously embark on a mutual relationship, all the while William's wife has a terminal illness, and Cora's son has autistic tendencies. There are other characters: the jilted lover, the socialist companion, the London acquaintances et al., all of whom mix to form a story eloquently laced with crafted prose. And the descriptions of Essex and its customs, a county a know a little of, are outstanding.
If I had a question for Sarah Perry, though, it would be this. You appear to have turned your back on your Christian instruction, taking that which is the power of grace and repudiating it with the notion that we can all follow a humanist direction to do strongly. But why? The Essex Serpent is brilliant to allow the reader to encode their fears into their constructs, just like Ransomes' parishioners, and suit their ends. However, the moral failure of William Ransome's conduct with Cora Seabourne disturbs me more. It's as if the moral failure cannot be conquered, reflecting perhaps on some incident or incidents in the author's background in a strict Baptist church, with almost no access to contemporary art, culture, and writing. I'm speculating that her fear is the fall from God's favour. She starts the book hopeful that it is still there for her. Still, her human endeavour is now an unredeemable path, a fact that her King James Bible would bid her not to be afraid of: "Say to them of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you." Isaiah 35:4.
My recommendation to Sarah Perry and everyone else is to trust God for His justice and not seek any demise for negative childhood instruction. Reformed Christian theology isn't perfect, but the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It may not sell books, but in my book, it's true. As my hope for the future renews, letting go of the fears from the past, I hope too that Perry's future will continue, not least because she is a damn good author and storyteller.
Great bedtime reading.
Great book! Really enjoyable read.
Only the Serpent Isn’t True
This is a remarkable book beautifully written and best of all nearly every character is a hero, not in the sense that of derring do but in the sense that each one is true to himself and especially herself. Each one is realised and defined, even children and minor characters so that this reader was engaged almost from the first page. It is textured and colourful, perhaps I am prejudiced because I knew someone like Cora and I loved them both