• Hardcover: 432 pages
• Publisher: Custom House (June 6, 2017)
Costa Book Award Finalist, Waterstones Book of the Year, winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year and overall Book of the Year
“[T]he most deeply satisfying fiction you will read this year.”
–Waterstones Book of the Year
An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.
When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.
These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.
Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible . . . you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years" (Daily Telegraph, London).
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Cora Seaborne is a recent widow to an abusive husband and is reveling in her new found freedom. Dr. Luke Garrett saw Mr. Seaborne through his illness and is now enraptured with Mrs. Seaborne. He is also on the verge of performing open heart surgery, if only he had a willing participant. Taken with new found spirit, Cora travels to Essex with her son, Francis and friend Martha where there have been renewed rumors of a serpent haunting the town. There, in the small parish of Aldwinter, Cora meets Will, the local vicar, his beautiful and frail wife Stella and their children. Cora and Will, seemingly opposites, and with very different views of the serpent, strike up an unlikely friendship. As Cora spends more time in Aldwinter, the mystery and hysteria surrounding the serpent grows challenging the bounds of friendship in all directions.
The Essex Serpent is haunting and magical while being very firmly set in the reality of Victorian England. Rich and vivid writing makes the scenery and characters jump from the page. I was transfixed with Cora from the moment that she watched her husband die with a mixture of resolve, hope and giddiness. I loved that Cora was inspired by Mary Anning, a real paleontologist and so happily took up digging through the mud of a small farming village so unlike her London home. The mystery of the Essex serpent itself provides a mystery as well as a platform for the small parish of Aldwinter. I was intrigued by the real accounts of this 'Strange News Out of Essex,' but even more so by the fictional characters reactions to the serpent. Everything from hysteria to disbelief is displayed in the parish. However, it was not the serpent that was really the main focus of the book, but the unlikely friendships of the characters and how they progress. As much as I loved Cora and Will's friendship, I was interested in Stella and Frankie as well as Martha and Joanne. The Essex Serpent also shone light on a variety of Victorian London issues: advances in medical technology, housing crises, poverty, women's rights and gaining knowledge of the environment. Overall, a curious and addicting tale with as many facets as the serpent's scales that will be sure to take you on a delightful journey.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.
Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter