The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

There’s movement in the marsh that is seemingly taking the lives of the surrounding villagers. Many call it the Essex serpent. What starts off a superstitious motion quickly becomes a reality to all who surround it with nearly all wondering when it will next strike. Enter Cora, a widow from London searching for her big fossil discovery that will get her name into the Museum of Natural History; and then there’s Will, the local parishioner who his trying to dispel any notion that this creature is real. What follows is a work of art, a contemporary gothic novel that will not let you go.

A book very different from what I am currently reading, contemporary yet with hints of Victorian which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering when it is set. While the story focuses on both Cora and Will it is Cora who is the main focus, coming from an abusive marriage it is predominantly about her rediscovery of herself as she adapts to a new life of true friendships. For Will it is about faith, family and love and how far each can be stretched before they break.

I loved the friendship between Cora and Will and how, two people who are so different in their beliefs can become unlikely allies and later close friends. Over the course of the novel they both start to influence one another and their friendship goes to another level, something many people can only hope to achieve. The other level is simply being a constant, despite what they each go through their friendship becomes almost sacred, a melding of two minds. And while as a reader we hope for the romantic ending we know it cannot be. This book shows that love and friendship are not that different from one another and that with friendship you can still achieve a high level of intimacy.

Of course it is that tale of the serpent that brings them together. A gothic creature that cannot be proven enough to be alive of dead. A fantastical creature that lives solely in the minds of the villagers which makes it even more terrifying. As a kind of hysteria takes over the village we see how quickly people can be driven from their beliefs and how people struggle to regain it afterwards. If I were to put my university head on I would argue that the serpent is a representation of Darwinism and evolution and how it sweeps through people’s minds and questions their faith. Of course it could be a representation of the devil and how it causes people to abandon their faith and commit unholy acts. In both cases it is the mind which extrapolates and enforces the idea onto themselves and the masses.

This really takes a hold on the children who, with their still developing minds and imagination bring about some of the most gothic scenes within the novel. While in class they begin to chant as one, as if taken over by an otherworldly force. It is only the adults, or learned people, who do not succumb to the madness which is another blog post within itself.

The novel was a breath of fresh air and shows how these feelings of the loss of faith and the advances in science are still current today as they were back then. The novel paints what appears to be the perfect life and plants a few seeds of doubt which spiral out of control. What I truly loved about the novel was how it got me thinking and dissecting all that happened. I would quite happily write an academic essay on this book as there is so much going on to discuss and an analyse. If you haven’t read this book yet I implore you to. Not only does it make you think, it is a joy to read with engaging characters and multiple story’s all converging on this once quiet village.


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