Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent is a novel about the legend of a mysterious beast who eats sheep, children and whoever comes his way in the dark. Last seen in the 17th century, people now belief that it has come back. Unsurprisingly, the little town in Essex lives in great fear. Cora, a recent widow who couldn’t be happier to finally start her life without her husband, sees the possibility of the serpent being an undiscovered species, wanting to find it for scientific purposes. And then there is the rector of the village, William, who only wants the serpent to disappear and return to how it was before they found a dead man in the water. Together they are sucked into the legend and the mythical, dark waters didn’t release me (nor them) until the last page. 

The characters in this book are really, really great. I absolutely loved Cora. After being with a horrible man for years, she finally breaks free and couldn’t care less about how she looks and what other people think (although she does try to pretend to be grieving when meeting fellow Londoners). As she says herself:

I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ said Cora: ‘And I was never more happy. I can’t remember when I last looked in the mirror.

Cora feels like a fish in the water when it comes to all the scientific curiosity and growth of the Victorian Era. In this time, the first tube using electric trains opened, they had electric lights on the streets and in their houses and many diseases were discovered as well, such as tuberculosis and the cause of malaria.

But this novel also portrays the problems of that period. It isn’t just a mythical novel about the Essex Serpent – it also shows the harder side of life, namely the housing for the poor. The general notion was that, in some way, the poor deserved being kicked out of their homes, living on the streets or in cold, damp rooms. The nanny of Cora’s son, Martha, is a strong advocate for the improvement of the poor’s living conditions. Martha is not afraid to use everything (and everyone) to achieve her goal and her friendship with Cora was really moving.

There is another character (one of many) who I admired: William Randsome who disagrees with Cora and beliefs that we need God as scientific theory after theory will come, but God will be there – always. But Cora and Will’s shared wonder for the natural world does bring them together and a beautiful, dynamic friendship emerges – reflected both in the narration but also in their letters.

The Essex Serpent raises questions about the gaps between science and religion, between friendship and romantic love, and about what freedom and growth really means. It’s a book about all kinds of relationships: between lovers, family, friends and mixed forms of these. For me, the novel could have been more about the serpent and it could have gone deeper instead of remaining at the surface with regards to the topics it explores, but the characters stayed with me for quiet some time and now and then Cora pops up again, making me dress up in my oldest clothes and not looking in the mirror.

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