Estuarial Accent

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry –  Serpent’s Tail – ISBN: 978- 1781255452

I freely admit that the primary reason I purchased and read this book was because my favourite actor was cast and can be seen in the Apple TV adaptation (I have only watched Ep.1 and I am already furious at the many changes – why change the name of the damn pub, FFS???). That said, any novel of quality set in or near what I still consider to be ‘my neck of the woods’ attracts me, and as this one is primarily located in Colchester and the nearby Blackwater estuary, just a few miles from my last home in South Suffolk, I would probably have got around to it anyway.

I am so pleased that I managed to nab this copy of mine on my visit to the magnificent second-hand bookshop in Felixstowe, Treasure Chest Books, on our visit in May. What marvellous characters, what a vivid and multi-sensory evocation of place! I could almost taste the salt air and smell the rotting weed. What a fascinating exploration of the clashing of rationalism and religion, of superstition and science that characterised the nineteenth century!

The novel concerns Cora Seabourne, whose abusive husband dies very early in the narrative so it’s not really a spoiler. In his final illness he has been tended by an ambitious young surgeon, Luke Garret, whom, we soon learn, is carrying a torch for the new widow. Released from the tyranny of her husband’s coercive control, Cora is free to pursue her interests in the new science of palaeontology and she is intrigued by news of reported sightings of a mysterious sea creature off the East Anglian coast. Believing it might be one of Lyell’s ‘living fossils’ she travels with her autistic son and radical female companion Martha to investigate. 

In the estuarial village of Aldwinter she meets the local vicar, Will Ransome, and Stella, his strange, ailing wife. He is battling against his congregation’s belief that the Serpent is a judgement from God, and trying to dismiss its existence entirely. When Cora raises the possibility of it being a real living animal, they are bound to clash. But of course, there is much more to their relationship than that. 

In the novel, the events of which take place over the course of a year, we are shown the contemporary developments in medicine, the movement to improve the living conditions for the poor in the East End of London, and so much more that you might expect from a contemporary book set in the Victorian Era. But Perry captures the inner lives of her characters so exquisitely, with such a deft hand. Never do you feel you are being spoon-fed, but you reach the end of a chapter fully sated, happy, and yet somehow, eager for more. 

I can offer no greater compliment than to say that as I approached the final few chapters, I deliberately slowed down my reading, not wanting the experience to be over too soon. A wonderful, wonderful novel.

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