The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a book which completely took me by surprise. Of course, it fits in between some of my parameters for what I look for in a novel: it is historical fiction and at its core seemed to be an unusual heroine and a budding romance. Even better – in the first few chapters and as the title would suggest, there were hints of folklore. So, I began the book enthusiastically.
However, I soon began to lose interest. The heroine, Cora, has so many qualities that someone as old-school as I am in my tastes can find very off-putting. Perry frequently describes how messy and masculine Cora is in her appearance and how difficult she finds it to be maternal. Of course, this is very unenlightened of me, but from a purely looking-for-another-Jane-Austen-experience perspective, I feared this novel was not going to deliver. The budding romance I thought I had sensed from the Jane Eyre-style meeting between the hero and heroine soon began to look less and less ideal. And the one of the (what I considered to be) sub-plots to the narrative, concerning the characters of Edward Burton and Martha did not interest me.
I was dismayed to find that I was tempted not to finish the book. But, finding one night about a week ago, that I just could not sleep, I decided to give it one more go, and I am so glad that I did. Maybe it was the total lack of distraction that reading at 2:30 am can afford; maybe it was my mood at the time, but finally, something about the story just clicked, and I was finally involved. Sarah Perry is an absolutely beautiful writer. I still cannot put my finger on how she does it, but there is something so mesmerising about her ability to create huge amounts of detail and imagery with relatively few words. Her characters, including those who are not at the centre of the plot, are all fully fleshed out and complete with little quirks to make them feel entirely real. There is a strong theme to this book of natural science and of nature, and anyone interested in either would enjoy this novel. Perry examines the relationship between science and religion and how those attitudes, as well as those towards feminism and social reform were beginning the change at around the time that this novel is set.
This is an intelligent, sensitive and richly textured novel that has inspired me to read more of Perry’s work. She the kind of author I should seek out more, because she takes me just slightly out of my comfort zone and challenges my ideas about what I think I will enjoy reading.