The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: My thoughts.
This is a book which has been clamouring for me to read it since it first appeared in bookshops over a year ago. The cover drew me in initially, it's beautiful. Many of my peers recommended it and I love historical fiction with a literary feel. But the first 2 or 3 times I tried to read it, it just didn't engage with me so I put it aside and finally last week picked it up again and kept going.
I enjoyed it, with a few reservations. It's very much a character-driven story. Set in Victorian England, in London and the South coast it is the story of Cora, recently widowed, her marriage never happy, she views widowhood as a kind of freedom, she has a son with whom she cannot bond and he is clearly on the autistic spectrum. She has a dour companion Martha who has been her rock, the 2 women act more like equals than mistress and servant and there is a deep connection which binds them.
Then there is Doctor Luke, short of stature, big on devotion, who hides his secret adoration for Cora, under his deep-set eyes and a frequent scowl, he and his wealthy friend, study medicine and dip in and out of their lives.
There are a lot of characters, we get involved in the story of one of the accident victims Luke treats, also friends of Cora, who with the best intentions, meddle in her life and put her on a course to meet the man who is everything she shouldn't admire. She has an interest in science and fossils and he, Will, is a man of the cloth, a small town pastor, with a sweet and delicate wife Stella whom Cora finds delightful.
Then there are the couples 3 children who also feature heavily, and Naomi, friend of their eldest girl. All these rich and well rounded, often flawed, characters weave into a story wrapped around a local legend of a sea monster. An illicit love, affections and the way our lives brush against anothers and set things in motion which cannot be undone.
The prose is lyrical and literary and I almost felt at some points the author was trying too hard to be worthy, but it is gentle and deep like the waterways of Essex which may or may not conceal a dark secret.
My main gripe is, I found very little of a historical feel. The characters all seemed to act in a modern way, speak in parlance you'd never have found in a Victorian drawing room and this jarred with me. Yes, I enjoy reading about one character who is out of their time, forward-thinking or rebellious. But ALL of them?? The narrative jarred with me and I had to keep reminding myself this book was set over a hundred years ago, as almost everything about it seemed far too current. Yes there are many references to events of the era and what is happening around them but I did feel almost every character, and there are many, was far too modern in their way of thinking and behaviour. I was expecting much more of a gothic feel, but what I felt throughout the book, was that I was watching modern actors in period costume converse in their own voices.
However the story is about people and feelings and is so cleverly woven, thoughtfully written and the characters have enough depth for me to be able to put this aside in the main and enjoy it for what it is, a great piece of storytelling and a thought-provoking novel.