Books of 2017 : #1 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
2016 was the year I achieved my goal of reading a book a week. As one of my resolutions for 2017 is to keep reading as much if possible, I’ve made an early start with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, as soon as December 31st. I know it’s kind of cheating but I was really eager to read it and I couldn’t wait. Of course there is no way of knowing if my very first book of 2017 will end up in my top books at the end of the year, but I’m ready to bet it will.
Like almost every book in English I buy, The Essex Serpent allured me at first with its cover. A design by Peter Dyer inspired by William Morris, this book’s cover is simply one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And after a quick search, I found out it wasn’t so surprising I fell in love with it, since the Essex born William Morris, now famous for his wallpapers* and fabrics, was part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It makes me want to write a Victorian novel too, so that I can have a similar cover.
But a nice cover never made for a good book. Luckily, The Essex Serpent is as pretty on the inside as on the outside. The also Essex born Sarah Perry** revives the myth of this serpent in her Gothic Victorian novel.
« London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new like as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis — a curious, obsessive boy — she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.
« When they take lodgings in Colchester, rumors reach them from further up the estuary that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar.
« Like Cora, Will is deeply suspicious of the rumors, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from real faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in ways entirely unexpected. »
Set in the Victorian era, this gracious novel celebrates love in all its forms, whether it is the motherly love for an autistic child*** or friendly love for a companion or a friend. And to make it even more page-turning, it is all set around the quest for a frightening monster, with mysterious disappearances and twists. While it is not a thriller per se, you’ll find it difficult to not read another chapter even when you’ve decided it’s time to put the book down and sleep. Sarah Perry’s clever use of the epistolary element makes it even more lively and enthralling. A strong female hero defying every rule, a vicar lured into sin trying really hard to resist, intriguing characters, an unfathomable monster and wonderful mysteries — all of it brilliantly written: what’s not to love in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent?
* Now that I know it, I’m wondering if the wallpaper I fell in love with at Westlodge B&B in Port Erin, on the Isle of Man, was William Morris too.
** Sarah Perry happens to have a PhD in creative writing from the Royal Holloway University of London, the very same university I studied at during my Erasmus year as a Masters student in History.
*** Never in the novel is the word ‘autism’ ever used. The story takes place in 1893 and the first occurence of the word ‘autism’ happens in 1910 with the Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Beuler. It is Hans Asperger who will give the word its modern sense, only in 1938. Therefore, one can only guess that Cora’s son probably suffers from the Asperger syndrome, but it is quite clear to anyone even remotely familiar with it, and from the first pages of the book.