The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies in late Victorian London, she retreats to the Essex coast a free woman, and becomes involved with a complicated local family and the search for a fabled new species, the ‘Essex serpent’.
This prize-winning doorstop was a book I’d longed to read since fans began cooing over its gothic drama and luscious language. It’s Perry’s second novel, but seems wrought from a writer with the skill and experience of someone twice her age, and contains some of the loveliest and most inventive writing I have ever read.
For a story so strange, and controversial, it does that wondrous thing of appealing to a wide audience, like the best kind of party host. I so wanted to be its best friend but something about it wasn’t my bag: it reads at times as one long Gothic love letter, and at others like the most contemporary of tales: a struggle between faith and science, man and woman, the heart and the head, with a feminist protagonist a century ahead of her time. I think I loved and respected Cora, but was saddened by some of her choices, and was therefore never running back to discover her next move. She reminds me of Anna Karenina, whose final act disappoints me more with each re-read, because I can’t bear to let her go. Despite these misgivings, I’d still like to read it again for a closer look at that wonderful language, and the chance to get closer to Cora.