I’ve been waiting for months for The Essex Serpent to be available in the United States. Too often when I get overly excited about a book and wait so long for it, it doesn’t live up to my expectations, but The Essex Serpent delivered.
Set in the late 19th century, the story follows Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, but not exactly grieving. She is looking forward to a trip to Essex to explore the shorelines and look for fossils, possibly one good enough to make a name for herself at the museums in London. Another enticing motivation for Cora is the resurgence of sightings of the mythical Essex Serpent. It has a power over the small community of Aldwinter: children go missing, men turn up drowned on the river banks, milk goes sour much too soon, and there’s a portent of something sinister in the air.
The story follows the mystery of the Essex Serpent superficially, but there is much more underlying the current of the relationships of the friends in Cora’s circle. Hearts are captured, inchoate friendships are challenged, and naturalism and religion become difficult to reconcile. The characters are what make this novel so believable. Each person in Cora’s life is multidimensional and complicated, as are their relationships with Cora.
The main characteristic that drew me in to this novel is its sense of place. The descriptions are imaginative, almost mystical. I could smell the salt on the air, feel the dampness at the shore, and see the indigo in the stones gripped by Cora’s friend who is delusional with consumption.
This book is atmospheric, full of dreary Victorian greys and blues. The language is subtle and so nuanced, in fact, that if you read too quickly you may miss something critical. Each character interaction, however trivial, often results in grand ramifications.
There are themes of early social consciousness of homelessness, how fear can drive the public into a frenzy, and how intellectual compatibility can often surpass in importance anything else in a relationship. The writing is delicate, often beautiful, and never heavy-handed. At times, in my assessment, the characters seemed to have too modern of ideals, and were often too accepting of progressive notions, but it did not detract from the story.
Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a compelling Victorian novel with a gothic feel. 5 stars all the way.