Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I really miss bookshops – whether they are fancy new bookshops that smell of new books and have tempting stands of new, crisp pages, or a second hand or charity shop, that has shelves of mismatched spines, some with significant wear and tear and some clearly read and then passed on.

I bought The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry at one of those charity shops, in the mid-year pandemic lull between the relaxing of restrictions and, well, Manchester has had additional restrictions in place, even when other places in England have been more mobile and free – for all but like, 13 days, I think. (Last saw my sister in September, and we spent the whole day walking around because she wasn’t allowed to come into our flat at all).

I digress. I picked this off the shelf in a charity bookshop (Oxfam, I think) in Altrincham, when we had gone on a weekend jaunt. It looked interesting, but also, because I touched it, I felt like I had to buy it. (Yes, I’m probably a bit more pandemic paranoid than I need to be, especially with all the hand-sanitiser and washing and stuff, but I feel guilty if I touch stuff but don’t buy it. This goes for veggies at the shops or goods on the shelf). So I bought this and like, two other books, one of which was AA Milne’s Four Days Later, which I read last year, and the other was A Discovery Of Witches, which has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, but I’ve finally started it. The Essex Serpent, with its fancy cover and shiny green foiling, caught my eye, and I thought I’d give it a go.

Stole the cover off Amazon as usual – my edition has pretty shiny gilt/foil bits.

Unspoilery synopsis

Cora Seaborne, a widow who has finally been freed from a rather abusive and stifling marriage by her husband’s death, has decided to go to Essex on holiday, to pursue her interest in paleontology. She takes her companion, Martha, and her son, Francis with her. Cora has no interest in being the lady society expects her to be – prefering to traipse around the countryside wearing boots and a man’s coat, with her hair all scruffy. She visits the town of Aldwinter, where she encounters the very un-country-vicar-like William Ransome (and wife, Stella and their children). Cora and William become great friends, with a level of intellectual sparring causing most of their friends and loved ones to raise a suspicious eyebrow and wonder at the exact nature of their friendship. The town is stricken – or so they believe – by a sea monster with scales and leathery wings. Cora thinks it might be a still-living prehistoric beast, and is determined to follow in the footsteps of Mary Anning and discover it for science. Will Ransome thinks it a distraction from faith, a figment of the collective imagination – something which comes to the fore even more when some mass hysteria breaks out in the school. The plot thickens when it becomes clear that Stella has tuberculosis and entertaining flights of fancy.

Victoriana – my new… obsession?

I don’t know why, but I have decided I need a full length late Victorian/ early Edwardian (don’t come for me, I know there is a difference) walking skirt. I’ve now submitted to this need, bought my fabric and a pattern, and will be sewing it over the course of my leave. So, grabbing this of the TBR pile and finding it was another patch of Victoriana, well, it just seemed to fit. Gotta keep watching those Costuber videos, think about flat-felling seams or ordering some bias tape to finish the hems and dusting off my sewing machine.

Worth it?

It’s a good book, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s outside my usual, but that’s also part of the charm. It cemented some thoughts I’d had about striding along country lanes in a walking skirt, pondering the meaning of life, but I think I’m far more likely than Cora to pop into the local church. It thinks about itself a lot as a book, but not in an obnoxious way – I think the epistolary passages and how time is marked draw attention to the text itself in an appropriately measured way, and without detracting from the plot.

I’m not alone thinking that it’s a good story – it’s been picked up as a TV adaptation. I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge and finding most of the way through that there’s an accompanying movie or TV series. Is this luck? Initially, Kiera Knightly was cast as Cora, but has pulled out due to COVID-y childcare issues and stuff. Cora will now be played by Claire Danes – which seems like a good casting choice too. I mean, I feel like I want Rosamund Pike to play lots of people, (and she’s currently busy filming Wheel of Time!) but she would also have been a very good Cora. As of current writing, but after I filmed the video version of this, Tom Hiddlestone has been announced as William Ransome. I will wait in eager anticipation to see how they bring it to life.

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