Book reviews, Costa Book Awards, Historic, Literary fiction

Review: The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent is one of the most talked-about books of the year. It’s up for the novel prize in this year’s Costa Book Awards, and it’s the final book from that category I’ve read as part of my challenge to complete them before the prize is announced in January.

The Essex Serpent

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.

When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumours reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species.

As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar. Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

What’s good about it?

Perry harnesses all of the wonderful tropes of Victorian fiction to secure her novel firmly in a strong sense of place and time. She writes authoritatively and eloquently about this period, and envelopes the reader into the world of the novel instantly.

She writes place very well, and her descriptions of the Blackwater estuary and landscape of Essex are hauntingly beautiful.

In her protagonist, Cora, she presents a strong and independent woman trying to redefine her life in the wake of the death of her ogre of a husband, while keeping up appearances in Victorian society and caring for her son. Cora is a complex character, both strong and vulnerable, but one that is delivered with much authenticity.

What’s not so good about it?

I was bored. I didn’t feel this book had enough energy or pace to keep me engaged for its 416 pages.

It took me a while to get into it, I enjoyed the middle immensely but once I reached the 300-page mark I was distracted by calculating how much was left to go.

I don’t want to be too harsh. I enjoyed Perry’s writing style and her use of language is exquisite but the plot was just not tight enough for me. In a similar reaction to Maggie O’Farrell’s book in this category, I appreciated The Essex Serpent rather than truly being won over by the narrative.

This response was a surprise to me as I’ve heard such good things about this book from so many sources. Perhaps my expectations were too high; however, for me this book was too long and too slow to sustain me for more than 400 pages.

I really did want to love it as it ticks so many boxes for the things I look for in a novel. I’ll go back to it another time and hopefully all of the wonderful things others have enjoyed from this book with click with me then. But, for now, they just didn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *