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The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent

This novel by Sarah Perry, set in London and the Essex marshes in 1893, was much acclaimed by literary critics and was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2016.  It tells the tale of the central character, Cora Seaborne, newly widowed and released from an abusive marriage, who goes from London with her young son to stay in Colchester.  Initially, she is searching for fossils, but soon becomes intrigued by tales of a mysterious serpent in the Blackwater estuary, the subject of local myth and legend for generations.  Through her research of this creature, she becomes involved with the local vicar and his family and her complex relationship with him is an intriguing thread throughout the book. There are many other sub plots and characters, while social, political and religious issues of the time are also explored.

Almost without exception, the group members enjoyed this book and were particularly struck by the beauty of the descriptive language used.  We felt the melancholy, almost menacing, atmosphere of the estuary was brought to life so well that it was easy to understand why the inhabitants of the area and their forbears had readily believed in the serpent and the malign influence it could have over unexplained events.  The story moves variously between Essex and London and we thought the grinding poverty and hardship experienced by those living in the East End was also graphically described.  

The relationship between Cora and the vicar was felt to be very sensitively handled and while Cora was not a wholly likeable character, she inspired sympathy and the relationship, partly conducted by letter, was intriguing. This was an era of great change in England and we discussed whether too many characters and issues - Darwinism, medical practice, attitudes to social justice, even autism - were touched on, but not explored fully.  However, it was pointed out that the
turbulence of world and even local events frequently leaves the majority of ordinary lives untouched.  This was reflected particularly in a remote village like Aldwinter, where the mysterious serpent was of far greater preoccupation to the residents than events in London.  The ending of the book was perhaps an anti climax, but overall we felt this was an impressive and unusual book which we would certainly recommend.

Review by Barbara Marsh