The Essex Serpent is one of those novels that’s hard to ignore. It’s picked up dozens of awards and been sat in the window of every book shop, much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist from a few years ago – which I really wasn’t a fan of. Because of my disappointment of that novel, I was fairly hesitant when it came to this one. When you get a little excited for a book, it almost always ends up letting you down, right?
I’ll stop dancing around my opinion on The Essex Serpent and say that I did enjoy it. Sarah Perry’s latest novel, while a little overstuffed, is a good read. The central storyline is compelling, and while It does have a few too many characters, most of them are interesting. At its heart, the novel is about a married woman trying to discover who she really is after the death of her husband, whom she was forced to marry at a young age. Cora, along with her son Francis and her servant Martha, moves to the Essex countryside from London in search a mythical creature that’s rumoured to have been terrorising a nearby town. While hunting for the monster, Cora falls into company with the local’s church’s rector, William Ransome. As they try to prove and disprove the existence of the serpent, the two of them develop a close friendship.
Like I said, the central storyline is solid and Perry handles the central romance in an interesting way. Still, despite this, Cora’s struggles didn’t really feel like anything new to me. They felt very similar to those featured in the Victorian novels the author is clearly taking inspiration from… Though Cora doesn’t end up being half as interesting as the heroines in those books. In fairness, novels like Wuthering Heights and Ruth are an incredible high bar for The Essex Serpent to meet, but it just felt like Cora – as well as William – was missing a certain spark. Despite how well constructed the novel is, and how the heroine’s journey works well on paper, she just wasn’t someone I could get enthusiastic about.
The novel’s more interesting characters, in my opinion, hang around the fringes of the novel. Though I felt The Essex Serpent strayed too far from its central storyline at times – with there being a fairly long-winded B-plot about Cora’s servant trying to help those affected by London’s poverty – these side plots had some pretty fantastic character moments in them. Cora’s friend, London surgeon Luke Garrett, stole the show in many ways for me. The emotional journey that he and his friend George Spencer go through in the novel seemed much more original than Cora’s romance, focusing how powerful friendship can be in pulling people through tough times. Stella, William’s wife, was another stand-out character for me. Perry shows us her decline into illness in a gradual way, offering us her point of view along the way, and the way she does this is both original and moving.
Overall, The Essex Serpent is, in many ways, the book I expected it to be. It’s undoubtable good, but at times feels too structured and formulaic. Around its edges is where the novel’s best moments lie, where it appears less keen on being something that’ll be universally loved – basically book awards bait – and something a bit more weird and interesting. It’s a great novel that just feels a little bit lacking.