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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

We have gathered all the fantastic reviews our Book Club Members have sent us this month.

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Robert Harris

The novel is set in London and Essex during the 1890’s, not an era I have studied extensively.

The central characters are, Cora Seaborne, from a wealthy background who has been recently widowed, and Will Ransome, a vicar of a small parish in Essex. Following the death of her husband Cora moves to the parish of Aldwinter accompanied by her companion Martha and her “strange” son Francis. There she meets the vicar and his family. Cora, a strong woman, is relieved to be free of a domineering husband and able to pursue her interest in modern sciences particularly paleontology.

There is a relatively large cast of secondary characters, many from Cora’s London days, including Luke Garrett, her husband’s doctor and pioneering surgeon. Cora is introduced to Will by mutual friends, and they develop an easy friendship despite their differences. The clash between religion and science is a central theme.

The Essex Serpent of the title is a local folk legend which can be viewed as superstitious nonsense or something left over from prehistoric times. As strange events and deaths occur in the parish the locals resurrect the legend, the vicar plays it down as foolish superstition and Cora hopes to make her name by discovering an animal left over from prehistory.

The book has well developed characters and evocative descriptions of the environment. Although I struggled initially to engage with this story, it eventually finishes on a high note.

Marie Jones

How many types of love are there? Let’s see.

Love between man and woman, husband and wife, parents and children, platonic love between two men or two women, love between children, love of job, of the countryside, of home, of God, of a way of life long established.

The Essex Serpent deals with all of them to a greater or lesser extent.

The writer, Sarah Perry, demonstrates throughout the text her love of language and its potentiality.

Her descriptions of the Essex countryside are striking and give the reader proof beyond doubt of the arrival of a new voice on the literary scene.

The various threads of the story are expertly interwoven, with just the right amount of social background, there are no loose ends and the final page leaves the reader with room for some amount of interpretation.

I will reread this novel. It is in a class by itself with a new type of heroine, perhaps a modern woman ahead of her time. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Diane Ball

Wanting a fresh start, recently widowed Cora moves to Essex with her son Francis - a strange obsessive boy - and her friend and companion Martha.

Cora is a keen amateur naturalist and she is intrigued by tales of a mystical sea monster living in the estuary. The locals fear the creature, believing it responsible for deaths and accidents. However, Cora thinks the serpent may be a living relic unknown to nature.

Soon she makes the acquaintance of Vicar William Ransome, becoming friends with him and his lovely, but frail, wife Stella.

Cora and William become increasingly close despite disagreeing about almost everything. This book explores the developing relationship between them and the effect this has on their families and friends.

The Essex Serpent is well written and the wonderful descriptions really bring Essex and London in the 1890's to life.

It did not, however, fully engage me. Not a great deal happens and there are few surprises when the truth about the serpent, and other issues, is finally revealed.

Lesley Brunink

It is the first time I have come across this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. She has a delightful descriptive way of writing that draws the reader into the atmosphere and emotions the characters are experiencing. You can almost feel the dampness of the fog and see the mist rolling in across the waters.

Based on the first few months of the widowhood of the main character Cora the story explores how she tries to find her real identity. Obviously very intelligent and a hankering to learn about science, she tries to rebel against the social etiquette of Victorian life. Bringing together her different friends in a tangle of love triangles and relationships.

The author successfully manages to weave all this together with a rural mystery of a creature living beneath the sea, which when added to people going missing, causes the villagers to remonstrate with the local vicar about good and evil. In the background is Francis her son and the love she has for him. He too brings into the story his own element of mystery. A truly delightful read.

Jean Johnson

Having read several rave reviews of The Essex Serpent, I wondered after initial references to geology and ‘the Trouble’ whether it would be as enthralling as I had hoped. Once the recently widowed Cora was connected with Aldwinter parish I realised that this second novel set in the county where the author was born was indeed very special. I too found it hard to put down!

Apart from the skilful use of English, the strength is in the breadth of issues incorporated into a novel which ‘is most of all a celebration of love’. Themes range from the plight of the London poor, contrasted with that of Cora’s wealthy contacts, to life in a country vicarage and in a small coastal community. Both science and medicine crop up in a clever range of circumstances. Cora had no time for religion but those who know the Christian Scriptures will notice how cleverly apt quotations are woven into correspondence and conversation. Heartache and sorrow, as well as fear of the dreaded monster, are well portrayed. All in all, this is a very different approach to life at the end of the nineteenth century. Do read it. You will not be disappointed!

Pamela Lentschner

A fascinating and beautifully written story of Victorian life. Recently widowed Cora Seabourne develops a passion for science and the natural world. When she hears that a mythical monster has recently been seen off the Essex coast, she is eager to investigate. In Essex, she meets Vicar Will Ransome, and despite their opposing views on science and faith, they develop a strong and complex relationship.

Perry’s strength lies in the vivid description of the Essex coast. She brilliantly captures the changing landscape, the mists and the salt breezes, the rural fields and ramshackle dwellings. Her plot is ambitious and skilfully includes many of the big issues of the time – religion, science, poverty in London’s slums, advances in medicine and their ethical issues. Perry also uses letters between the characters to good effect, revealing more about their unspoken thoughts and feelings.

It was interesting to have a female protagonist as the champion of science and rational thought, although Cora is also a contradictory and elusive character. The engaging and well-developed secondary characters, such as the doctor Luke Garrett, give depth and variety to the plot. This was a satisfying and enjoyable read, with a great sense of time and place.

Catherine Berry

Set in 1893 in London, Colchester, and the nearby Essex estuary of Aldwinter, this is the story of a rich widow, Cora, and Will, a happily married vicar living in Aldwinter with his family. The Essex Serpent lurks unseen in the estuary waters and is blamed for everything bad that happens there. Will's religious beliefs are at odds with the myth but Cora, a keen amateur biologist, longs to "discover" it. Their contrasting views don't stop them falling for each other and their friendship is even encouraged by Will's wife.

Cora's autistic son adds another dimension to the story, along with her friend, Luke, a doctor pioneering in heart surgery, Martha, a socialist feminist, and George, a philanthropist. The love between all the characters is a celebration of of the many guises it can take. The women are strong and the men caring.

The story is beautifully told and very atmospheric.

Thankyou Viking for introducing me to an author I had not read before. I shall certainly look forward to reading more of her work.

Valerie Betts

Cora is recently widowed with a son, Francis. She decides to spend the summer on the coast in Essex where she collects fossils. Sarah's description of Francis, who is obviously autistic is incredibly detailed and leaves you in no doubt about his behaviour. Cora's presence affects the locals in Aldwinter in various different and, often unsettling, ways. As for the Essex Serpent all is revealed towards the end of the book.

It isn't a book I would usually choose to read and it took me a time to get into it but, I feel, the essence of a good book, is one you can't forget and my mind keeps returning to the Essex marshes because you can almost feel the salt on your tongue.

Lyn Sutter

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Thank you Viking for sending me this fabulous book to review.

Once started it was difficult to put it down. Compelling characters who came to life on the page, carrying you with them on their journey.

One of those books you read again and again.

Jackie Brown

The blurb on the dust cover made me very keen to read this book: glowing praise for the language, the plot and the setting. I am a voracious reader with a wide taste, however I stumbled at the first page of the prologue, finding the prose turgid and confusing. I stumbled again at the first chapter, finding the rather archaic style unwelcoming, and would probably have given up had I not been reviewing. So I persisted for 148 pages out of the 416 or so, after which I still had no interest in the slightly strange characters and their activities. At this point I have abandoned the book.