Sarah Perry presents a comprehensively intelligent story in gorgeous, sprawling prose in The Essex Serpent. With a convincing tone that’s suggestive of the damp grayness of Victorian-era coastal England, Perry’s American debut (and her second novel) builds and unfolds with never-hurried pacing. Because of its density and care, it is not a page-turner, but more a slow burn to be savored and carefully pondered.
Following the death of her abusive husband, the young widow Cora Seaborne retreats with her son and nanny from London to Colchester, where the soil is ripe with fossils. The tale of a bloodthirsty sea creature has haunted the town of Colchester for centuries; its legacy is even etched into the ancient wood of the church pews. A recent earthquake is thought to have dislodged it and set loose its wrath upon the community.
Cora is a budding naturalist, which is common among housewives of her class and era. Cora, however, possesses exceptional intelligence and a newly unbridled passion for living. As she overturns the soil, collecting whatever she can carry, she hopes to discover glimpses of herself now that her husband is gone.
Cora befriends the local vicar, William Ransome, and his ailing wife, Stella. William and Cora have a stirring intellectual connection, one that both intrigues and infuriates them as they challenge each other’s respective beliefs. Cora believes the Colchester serpent is real and is enthralled by the opportunity to discover a new species. William believes the serpent to be a metaphor for the evils that dwell within everyone, a terror that can be dampened by faith.
The novel deftly leaps from character to character, including extremely well-written and complex children. While Perry writes a convincing romance, the romantic subplot deflates what could’ve been a feminist anthem of self-discovery and deep platonic intimacy.