Saturday, 12 August 2017

Book Review: The Essex Serpent

I'm the worlds worst for choosing books based on a beautiful cover and this one is definitely no exception to that rule. Sarah Perry has crafted an intriguing novel, set in Victorian London and coastal Essex. Upon starting the novel I wasn't really sure what to expect; starting with the background of a widow who arrives in Essex with her sensitive and slightly eccentric child Francis and his Nanny Martha. As a reader you assume that Cora's reasons for moving to Essex are to grieve her husband, however fairly early on in the novel it becomes clear that this is not the case at all. From a modern day perspective, it was obvious that her husband was undeniably rich, judging by the way the family can just relocate without having to find any work but it was also made clear that her husband was abusive but mentally and physically. Cora is an unusual character, she goes against the grain of the average Victorian female as she refuses to conform to the idealisations of her gender, wearing no make up and regularly dressing in men's clothing.

Cora's natural instinct for curiosity is aroused through a London acquaintance making her aware of some bizarre happenings further into Essex, correlating with the title of the novel. The Essex Serpent comes across as a bit of a joke, a superstition of the villagers and something that seemingly drives the vicar into massive bouts of anger, which he eventually does take out on a statue. Cora definitely becomes free after her husband dies, I suppose in terms of Victorian England she's very different to other women, which presumably is why so many of the males in the book find themselves enamoured with her. One of the men who were desperate for her affections was a Doctor, the one who cared for her sick husband before his death. He is described as very intelligent, but facially ugly and unfortunately doesn't hold much to Cora other than companionship. He's incredibly jealous of the life she makes for herself in Essex. Much of the content of the book is voiced through hearsay and the characters thinking and believing things that from a modern day perspective, clearly couldn't be true, or at least are an exaggeration. 

Another aspect of the plot that worked really well was that of Martha and Charles; essentially the rich benefactor that bought his way into caring for the poor families across the streets of London. Charles quite clearly has feelings for Martha and ultimately although she is aware of this and doesn't reciprocate, she enjoys his company purely for the 'greater good', which she believes would eventually help bridge the huge gap between the rich and the poor that was the everyday strife of growing up in Victorian London. There are many themes set about in this novel, including science, superstition, mental illness, sexuality, sexual desire and unrequited love. None of the characters have many redeeming features to them and rarely have a happy ending; the affair between Cora and the Vicar whilst his mentally ill wife is aware is fairly scandalous, regardless of the era, but it was an excellent plot twist.

Overall, this novel was very hard going; in linguistic style it reminded me a lot of Dickens, although I would also argue that it was not only structured better, but delivered better. Although there were many characters spread out amongst the pages, as a reader you were introduced to each one and they were laid out in depth which made them feel far more real than simply letters on a page. Perry writes beautifully, that was clear very early on in the novel and the many themes running through the chapters seamlessly through the extensive characterisation and interweaving love triangles. When I started this book, I really wasn't impressed; it was difficult and definitely the kind of novel that you have to give a lot of time and energy to it before it begins to shape. However, once I read roughly 200 or so pages, I found myself more into it than I had previously realised. I would recommend this novel, but only if you're willing put the time and effort into appreciating it, it's not one for everyone.

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