We’re finishing off 2016 on a positive note, with Watersones’s Book of the Year: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.
In 1890, London is abuzz with the latest scientific thinking – Darwin has published On the Origin of the Species a mere 31 years before, Mary Anning has been searching for her fossils on the sea shore, and every new scientific discovery is the talk of the town, especially paleontology. Meanwhile, a long forgotten beast has returned to the Essex Blackwater – eating livestock, taking boats. A body has washed up on the shore.
Into this setting steps Cora Seabourne. Recently widowed, she heads to the sleepy town of Aldwinter on the Blackwater – partly to see if she can find evidence of the fabled Serpent that will make her name in the sciences, and partly to find her feet after being freed from her domineering husband.
The whole book is a sumptuous affair, engrossing even. It’s a nice book too: every character is sympathetic, if not all that likeable. There are some nice extras in the background – a reminder that the 1890’s weren’t that different. There’s a housing crisis in London, and a war in Afghansitan.
Perry uses this as setting to explore the spaces where friendship and love meet, and where faith, superstition, and science collide (or rather the gaps in-between each).
Underneath it all is a novel that pushes us to be open to revising our long held beliefs, or to rethink our first impressions.
Some of the symbolism is laid on a bit thick – the Essex Serpent is both mythical beast, the healing serpent of Asclepius, and the tempter of the Garden of Eden.
I found the end a bit of an anti-climax (but then, all sightings of mythical beasts are bound to be an anti-climax in the end right?).