The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

One of my top books of the year: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Something I struggle with in reading modern nonfiction is finding books that are substantive and complex but not unrelentingly grim or horrific. This book isn’t sweetness and light, but the tribulations the characters encounter don’t render them forever miserable.

What I do love in a novel is a bit of gothic-ness, a hint of something lurking, a mysterious creature in the background. In this book, that is–as you might have guessed–the Essex Serpent. The main character, Cora Seaborne, is enamored of Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries, and rumors of a sea monster tempt her to visit Essex. Cora thinks the sea monster is a rare example of an ancient creature, something with a rational and scientific explanation. The villagers think it is a literal monster, one that is killing animals and kidnapping children.

But the serpent remains a background figure in the novel, a thread that propels action on occasion. The plot instead centers around Cora, recently widowed (and not unhappy about that), and her relationships with her autistic son, her companion, and two men, the single, strange, and talented surgeon Luke Garrett and the married priest William Ransome. Another somewhat rare feature of this novel is that the relationships focus on friendship, not romance. Friendships link all the characters; Cora’s actions in particular test the bonds of friendships; and friendships save a couple of the characters. None of the characters are perfect, but all are redeemable in the end–no pure heroes or villains, much like real life.

Perry creates a tremendous atmosphere, from the lurking presence of the serpent to the dark, rainy, mossy Essex setting, and visits to the tenements of London. I like that kind of atmosphere for a winter read, and I felt totally wrapped up in the story and the place. I really can’t say enough good things about it, and I look forward to reading Perry’s other books.

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