Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is one of those darkly ominous historical novels that proves quite difficult to define; it’s not quite fantasy, but is nonetheless imbued with a sense of magic and dark whimsy.
NOTE: This review has been published (as of May, 2017) in the Copperfield Review! Click through to read it on their site.
I picked it up (as is my wont) entirely because of the cover. And a fitting cover it is too: at first glance all I saw was an attractive William Morris design, and didn’t notice the serpent winding sinuously through ornate leaves. That’s a good parallel to the book itself; the fictional Essex Serpent is as elusive as the one on the cover, wending its way through the minds of the characters and making itself known through strange, portentous events in many ways more frightening than any physical beast with snapping beak and leathery wings could be.
Just as elusive and wonderful are the relationships between the characters. Their development does not progress in expected ways and none are neat and tidy enough for the book to be classified as a love story—unless, perhaps, one expands ones definition of ‘love’ outside the traditional sense of the word. The women, too, are an especial highlight of the book: there are wives and mothers but at no point is any woman in The Essex Serpent reduced to such a role. All, Stella especially, prove to have untold depths, often as strange as any natural phenomenon. Their stories, especially those of Cora and Stella, tangentially connected by their shared—though different—love for William, interweave to form the toothsome fabric of a deep, layered story.