I should have loved The Essex Serpent. Instead, I just liked it.
Sarah Perry’s second novel follows a bunch of eccentric characters in late Victorian England as they embrace or resist the massive changes sweeping society and culture at the time–including the rise of socialism, evolutionism, and atheism. These characters include: Cora Seaborne, a young widow with tomboyish inclinations and an enthusiasm for fossils; Will Ransome, a kind and clever man who gave up his family’s career ambitions to be a pastor in a tiny, benighted village; and Luke Garrett, an endlessly talented and ambitious doctor who views the human body as a machine that can be tinkered with and taken apart and put together again. The main thing that brings these and other characters together, entangling them in love triangles, great friendships, and unexpected alliances, is the rumour that a legendary reptile has been stalking rural Essex, stealing babies from boats, scaring goats to death, and causing milk to curdle.
There are so many I things I should love about this book. It contains cryptozoology, teenagers dabbling in the occult, long walks in the British countryside, strange superstitions, pioneering acts of surgery, hypnotism, a new twist on the old “one of the character has consumption” trope, and Mary Anning worship. Friendship is a key theme, with many different types represented: the meeting of the minds between Cora and Will; the bromance between Luke Garrett and his colleague George Spencer; the unexpected alliance (late in the book) between Luke and Cora’s buddy Martha; the unusual affection between Stella and Cora (unusual because, in any other book, at least one of the two women would be jealous of the other); the lovely way Stella bonds with Cora’s son, Francis, over their similar eccentric obsessions. Finally, the prose is ornate, and rich in beautiful imagery–here’s one of my favourite passages:
For all that, he does not write–he hardly feels the need. She signals to him in the high mare’s tails overhead, in the turns of phrases she has borrowed and lent in the curled scar on his cheek; and by similar means he imagines he also signals to her: that their conversation go on, silently, in the downspin of a sycamore key.
And yet, I did not love this book! I lost interest in all characters but two about halfway through, and kept reading purely for the two characters I did still care about (Stella and Francis) and for Perry’s style and imagery.
I’ve thought a lot about what this book’s problems might be, and I have narrowed them down to the following:
(1) Perry isn’t as good at creating characters and making them do stuff as she is at describing the British countryside, coming up with startling imagery, or finding clever ways of expressing things. So I kept being delighted by the book’s form, then let down by its contents.
(2) The characters are just short of being persuasively human-like. They’re interesting to begin with, and likeable, and there are things about them you haven’t encountered anywhere else, and other things that remind you of people you know, but, in the end, a certain something is missing, and I can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s enough to dispel any illusions that Cora, Will, Luke are real humans, revealing them for the conglomerates of words and ideas they really are.
(3) There’s too much going on. There’s so much going on that many of the characters stop caring about the Essex Serpent itself about halfway through the book–even though that particular storyline keeps going almost till the end of the book.
(4) I loved the relationship between Stella and Francis, and I kept wishing that the book had been a novella or short story just about them.
Do I regret reading this book? No–there’s plenty to like. Do I recommend it? Sure–if nothing else, so you can leave a comment telling me what you thought of it. It’s entirely possible that I missed some things, and I’m happy to be persuaded that this is a better book than I currently think. Or maybe it’s a worse book than I currently think! So if you loved it or loathed it, and want to help me figure out The Essex Serpent, any comment will be very much appreciated.