Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It can be a good thing when you check out a library book that has other people waiting for it: it makes you read really fast because you can't renew it and extend your time. I fear if I'd had more time to read The Essex Serpent I may have called it quits and never finished it. As it was, I stayed up late last night and am happy to say I turned the last page and now know the story of the Essex Serpent. 

I have to say this wasn't the novel I expected; I blame myself for not paying too much attention to other people's reviews.  My curiosity was taken by the story of a woman in search of a mythical creature that may or may not exist. There is so much more to Sarah Perry's novel; it took me in a very different direction. Why do we believe in mythical creatures? What does it do to test our belief systems, and our faith in God?  Why would such creatures exist, except to punish us for our transgressions? People are quick to blame every bad accident, death, or crop failure on that unknown thing. We are being punished because we're bad, somehow.  

In Victorian England, Cora Seaborne is newly widowed, and leaves London to travel to Essex with her companion Martha and her young son Francis.  Fascinated by fossils, nature, and geology, Cora is finally free to pursue her interests with wild abandon. Rumors of a sea serpent in Blackwater have begun to make the people of Aldwinter, the village near Blackwater, very uncomfortable.  They turn to William Ransome, the village rector, to provide comfort and explanations.  Through friends, William and Cora connect, and she's invited down to Aldwinter to visit William and his wife and children.  Here begins the real story:  William and Cora.  Fast friends, they find a shared interest in nature, and enjoy arguing with each other.  It's pretty obvious they fall in love, but neither is fully aware.  Williams' wife, Stella, is a lovely woman suffering from tuberculosis.  Cora loves Stella, and does her utmost to ignore her growing feelings for William.  It's an interesting love triangle; Stella sees the closeness of her husband and friend, and is happy he has someone to share his interests with; Cora dresses as mannish as possible to keep any femininity at bay.  William loves his wife and only understands he loves Cora in one lightning moment, months into their friendship.  

Meanwhile, Martha is involved in solving housing issues for the poor in London, and has convinced a wealthy doctor to become part of the solution.  There's also Luke Garrett, another London surgeon madly in love with Cora, but those feelings aren't returned.  His story starts out slow, but towards the end of the novel, he becomes more of a focus.  

I spent a lot of time trying to pull all of the pieces of this plot together.  I'm sure I'm missing something because I don't have anyone to help me pick apart the storyline.  What I did see was the evolution of England and its people from a place of old beliefs and superstitions to an industrialized nation focused on money and the "machine".  It is the background to this story; and I felt a bit melancholy reading this--it felt like an ode to a way of life that will never be again.  William is the anchor to the old way of life for the people of Aldwinter, and he can't explain why the creature exists, and what it wants.  He grapples with spirit versus nature.  

So is there actually an Essex serpent?  You do get this answer, and it's pretty fantastic.  I won't spoil it, but I loved it.  And I won't tell you what happens to the multiple love triangles, because that's for you to discover.  Yes, there is more than one love triangle!  Sarah Perry's writing is so so good.  I could smell the salt air, the mud and clay; I could see the forests and feel the damp breeze. You feel a bit of a naturalist yourself reading Cora's adventure.  

Rating:  4/6 for a very different Victorian tale about faith, belief, the unknown, love, freedom, the astonishing natural world around us, and our struggle to balance what we know with the unknown. 

Available in hardcover, e-book, audio book, and large print.  

1 comment :

  1. I too loved this one. I think you pulled the plot together very well and I had a similar experience. The book has layers! Here is my review: http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-essex-serpent.html