Review: The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
4 out of 5 stars
“Not even knowledge takes all the strangeness from the world”
The Essex Serpent is one of those cases where I wanted to wait out the hype. Around its release in 2016, this novel seemed to dominate every bookclub, store shelf and reviewers frontpage. 19 year old me was a little intimidated by this and decided to put off reading the book, and apparently I completely forgot about it for quite some time, until I recently found myself in the library, being drawn to it by the sirens call of this beautiful cover. I’m happy I waited, as if I had read it during the hype, it might have been a bit of a disappointment, whereas now it was a very positive surprise. I had a great time reading this book. It ticks many of my boxes: themes of the conflict between myths and science, taking place in an atmospheric setting, gorgeous writing and very well developed characters. As an extra bonus: some of them have a great interest in medical sciences.
Sarah Perry’s amazing skill as an author really shows in this novel. Her writingstyle has the right balance of descriptiveness and lush language for me, and I utterly enjoyed it. She weaves together many individual storylines, and yet managed to keep me engaged in all of them. There was a single point (at around 200 pages), where I felt like the story of Cora dragged just a little, but throughout the rest of the book I had trouble putting it down.
Moreover, the novel is incredibly clever in its construction and its use of symbolism. Often authors fall into the trap of wanting to make their book “too smart” and either overstating their symbolic references, or leaving everything as vague as possible, to the point where you can question whether there was meaning in the first place. Sarah Perry finds a very good balance here; her symbolism is not too heavy handed, yet it’s clear she had her reasons for including many of the details. The strongest part about this novel, in my opinion, is the connection between the setting and the narrative. The story deals heavily with themes of finding explanations and meaning (either through science, religion or convention) for things you can’t understand. The mysterious, dark and often frightening nature of the landscape matches this perfectly.
I did feel the need to take a star off my rating, because of two gripes I had with the novel. The first is the character of Cora, who is presented as a feminist with scientific interest, even though that was unheard off for a woman of her time. This in itself was great, however, she did often fall into the trope of “fixing history”, where the protagonist is basically a modern woman who tells her contemporaries how to live “the right way”. We are told that this behavior is unheard of for a woman, but we are never shown this. Everybody around her seems to completely accept and respect her, and behaves as if they wouldn’t expect a lady to do otherwise. It would have been much more powerful (and realistic) if she had been a little less of a modern woman, and had sometimes had to battle the prejudices of her time and come out the other way.
The second disappointment was the ending, in some way, which was a little too neat to my taste. If you would like to know more about this, see my review on Goodreads, and click the spoiler-part.
Other than those two points; this was a great read, which I highly recommend. I am personally excited to read more from Sarah Perry and will be picking up very soon.