Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Essex Serpent should be on your TBR pile

I've always loved historical fiction but I don't read that much of it any more, unless it's for work. In the past year I've read some wornderful books, including Karen Essex's Kleopatra and its sequel. This weekend I read The Essex Serpent, a debut novel from UK author Sarah Perry and it was the best couple of hours I've spent in some time. Not only is the period well-researched, right down to little details like mention of a game of "Chinese whispers," but her writing is lush and layered and downright beautiful without getting in the way of the story.

In The Essex Serpent, a widowed woman with a scientific mind becomes intrigued by a local legend and with her companion and odd young son in tow, she begins looking into things, much to the dismay of her London friends, some of whom are aware her rich, controlling husband was an abusive bastard and some who are not. (Cora has a scar on her neck in the exact shape of an ornate leaf decorating a candlestick that her husband once pressed into her flesh lhard enough to wound.)
The "mystery" of the serpent is eventually solved, but that particular plot thread is not the only one that holds our attention.

This is a character-driven book and the characters are fantastic. Cora is an extremely sympathetic character. For all her flaws (and her companion Martha freely points those out), she's also a generous woman with a prodigious intellect, a woman born a century too soon. (There are scenes where ehs has to endure "mansplaining" and has to bite her tongue and readers will bond with her over the experience.) But then there's Cora's complex relationship with her 11-year-old son Francis. She doesn't really like him and though she'd say she loves him, we sense it's only out of duty. He IS very odd, and nowadays would likely be diagnosed as being somewhere along the autism spectrum. But Francis is not just a gimmick of a character; he's fully realized and when he unexpectedly bonds with a sick woman, it is a touching and believable event.
Cora meets a kindred spirit in the most unlikely place--the local rectory. She's a Darwinist and an atheist and she's delighted that the local minister is open-minded and quick-witted, and more than happy to challenge her to debates on a subject both find fascinating. And meanwhile, there's mass hysteria at the village school, a missing girl, a Socialist who awakens the social conscience of a wealthy man, and more.

The time period is the turn of the last century but much of what's going on here is timeless, particularly the arguments about how philanthropy often requires the poor to abase themselves in order to "quality" for the largesse. The book is lively and well-written and, I hope, only the first of many from Perry.


  1. Definitely going on the Wish List.

  2. I hope you enjoy it. Also, if you like well-written, character-driven stories with a point to them, try BEHOLD THE DREAMERS. It's the Oprah Book Club pick but I read it last year in galleys. It's fantastic.