Written by Sarah Perry
Review by E H Young
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is one of those darkly ominous historical novels that proves quite difficult to define; it’s not quite fantasy, but is nonetheless imbued with a sense of magic and dark whimsy.
I picked it up (as is my wont) entirely because of the cover. And a fitting cover it is too: at first glance all I saw was an attractive William Morris design, and didn’t notice the serpent winding sinuously through ornate leaves. That’s a good parallel to the book itself; the fictional Essex Serpent is as elusive as the one on the cover, wending its way through the minds of the characters and making itself known through strange, portentous events in many ways more frightening than any physical beast with snapping beak and leathery wings could be.
But it’s not clearly a gothic novel or a horror story either. The prose is beautiful and rich. It especially comes to life when Perry describes the Essex countryside: each page is full of the natural beauty of a region it is clear the author knows well. Though the protagonist might not approve of such a description, the way in which Perry describes the natural phenomena around which so much of the novel revolves—the Fata Morgana, the loamy undergrowth of English forests—is nothing short of magical.
Just as elusive and wonderful are the relationships between the characters. Their development does not progress in expected ways and none are neat and tidy enough for the book to be classified as a love story—unless, perhaps, one expands ones definition of ‘love’ outside the traditional sense of the word. The women, too, are an especial highlight of the book: there are wives and mothers but at no point is any woman in The Essex Serpent reduced to such a role. All, Stella especially, prove to have untold depths, often as strange as any natural phenomenon. Their stories, especially those of Cora and Stella, tangentially connected by their shared—though different—love for William, interweave to form the toothsome fabric of a deep, layered story.
Overall, The Essex Serpent is an esoteric, whimsical text that joins the ranks of generations of Victorian and Gothic novels from Doyle to Shelley, at the same time as it defies the very traditions these books have set down.
E H Young is a writer and bookblogger from Southern California currently living in Edinburgh.