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The Essex Serpent
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Archive: Other Books > Essex Serpent - Perry - 4 stars

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Jgrace | 3112 comments The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Essex Serpent- Perry
4.5 stars

This is a very difficult book to describe. The word that comes to mind is ‘atmospheric.’ There’s the cultural atmosphere of the Victorian drawing room and the seaside atmosphere of the Essex coastline. There’s a very definite atmosphere of changing beliefs, changing relationships, and changing lives. The story is late 19th century historical fiction, and despite the title it is not fantasy or magical realism.

The story takes place over a year with chapters devoted to each month. The last night of 1893 is given a prologue event that infects the imaginations of many characters. In January, Clara Seabourne becomes a young widow. She has an 11 year-old (possibly autistic) son, plenty of money, and freedom from an abusive marriage. She wants to escape society’s restrictions. She is fascinated with the fossil discoveries of Mary Anning. When the New Year’s Eve drowning resurrects tales of the mythical Essex Serpent, Clara imagines the possibility of a great scientific discovery.

The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore—”

Clara’s unconventional interests take her to the Essex village of Alwinter where she meets the local vicar, Will Ransome. Ransome is a rational, intelligent man who is struggling against the superstitions of his rural parishioners who believe the serpent to be an influence of the devil.

“He rejoices in the reason conferred on mankind but mistrusts the shifting sands of man's ingenuity.”

Clara sees the serpent as a possibly undiscovered species, while Ransome sees the increasing superstitious panic as a deviation from true faith.

Each considers the other to have a fatal flaw in their philosophy which ought by rights to exclude a friendship, and are a little baffled to discover it does nothing of the kind.

The story meanders through the year. There are other characters in Clara’s orbit. Luke Garrett, her husband’s doctor is in love with her. Martha, her maid/companion is using her influence with wealthy friends to support socialist causes. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is dying of consumption. His daughter is becoming a young feminist. There’s nothing neat and final about any of the relationships. Just time, and growth, and change.

This isn’t a book to read quickly. The writing is lyrical and needs to be savored. I wanted to underline many passages, but the book is too pretty to mark up.


Tracy (tstan) | 1238 comments I liked this one, too. And what a gorgeous cover!


Joanne (joabroda1) | 8436 comments Very nice review. I won this book in a GR giveaway. I enjoyed it too, but like you was stuck on how to write a review. I do not keep a lot of books(give them to my library for their book sale) as I do not have the room for a big library. The cover on this of this book is so,so beautiful I am finding space to keep it.


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