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The Essex Serpent : a novel
Book
2017
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Reviews

Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* Secret love and the suggestion of something unearthly moving in the Essex Blackwater drive the intricate plot of this atmospheric historical novel about Cora Seaborne, a widow visiting Colchester with her companion, ostensibly to explore the estuary for fossils. A medieval "winged serpent" myth still holds the inhabitants of Aldwinter in thrall, despite the best efforts of the local rector, Will Ransome; and as Perry's second novel (following After Me Comes the Flood, 2015) wends its way through mysterious disappearances, fog-laden visions, suspicion, and tragedy, it seems as if the monster is real. The vivid, often frightening imagery (the Leviathan, a shack sinking in the bog, the scrape of scales moving up the shingle) and the lush descriptions ("stained glass angels had the wings of jays") create a magical background for the sensual love story between Sarah and Will. Book-discussion groups will have a field day with the imagery, the well-developed characters, and the concepts of innocence, evil, and guilt. Like Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton (2008), the appearance of a sea monster sheds more light on humanity than on natural history, while the sudden revelation of a creature of the deep heralds change and revelation, as in Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide (2005). Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.

Library Journal Reviews

In good Queen Victoria's heyday (the year is never specified but would seem to be in the early 1890s), rumor has it that an earthquake has opened a fissure in leafy, bucolic, and apparently very muddy coastal Essex, through which a serpent slithers, part local bogey-beastie and part tourist attraction. Perry's (After Me Comes the Flood) large cast of characters centers on Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, who visits the town of Aldwinter, both because of her interest in fossils and to try out her newfound freedom. It turns out that her marriage had not been happy. While in Aldwinter, Cora meets married Rev. William Ransome, and they discuss faith and fossils, among other things. Almost 30 years ago, A.S. Byatt's take on the Victorian era, Possession, caught fire with readers. Lightning just might strike twice with this winner of British retailer Waterstone's 2016 Book of the Year. VERDICT Exercise caution approaching this literary garden pavilion, floored with mud, glorious mud, and canopied with lush and lovely blue English roses. You just may find yourself unable to leave. [See Prepub Alert, 12/19/16; see "Editors' Spring Picks," LJ 2/15/17.]—Bob Lunn, Kansas City, MO

Copyright 2017 Library Journal.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

In Perry's (After Me Comes the Flood) excellent second novel, set in the Victorian era, recent widow Cora Seaborne leaves London with her 11-year-old son, Francis, and loyal companion, Martha, and goes to Colchester, where a legendary, fearsome creature called the Essex Serpent has been sighted. Scholarly Cora, who is more interested in the study of nature than in womanly matters of dress, tramps about in a man's tweed coat, determined to find proof of this creature's existence. Through friends, she is introduced to William Ransome, the local reverend; his devoted wife, Stella; and their three children. Cora looks for a scientific rationale for the Essex Serpent, while Ransome dismisses it as superstition. This puts them at odds with one another, but, strangely, also acts as a powerful source of attraction between them. When Cora is visited by her late husband's physician, Luke Garrett, who carries a not-so-secret torch for her, a love triangle of sorts is formed. In the end, a fatal illness, a knife-wielding maniac, and a fated union with the Essex Serpent will dictate the ultimate happiness of these characters. Like John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, whose Lyme Regis setting gets a shout-out here, this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay. Cora makes for a fiercely independent heroine around whom all the other characters orbit. (June)

Copyright 2017 Publisher Weekly.

Flap Cover Text

Proclaimed as “one of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade” by the Sunday Times, the rapturous #1 bestseller and Waterstones Book of the Year in the UK arrives in America

London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was an unhappy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space, she leaves the metropolis for coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year-old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. 

Once there, they hear rumors that after nearly three hundred years, the mythical Essex Serpent, a fearsome creature that once roamed the marshes, has returned. When a young man is mysteriously killed on New Year’s Eve, the community’s dread transforms to terror. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, certain that what locals think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to parish vicar William Ransome, who is equally suspicious of the rumors but for different reasons: a man of faith, he is convinced the alarming reports are caused by moral panic, a flight from the correct and righteous path. As Cora and William attempt to discover the truth about the Essex Serpent’s existence, these seeming opposites find themselves inexorably drawn together in an intense relationship that will change both of them in ways entirely unexpected. And as they search for answers, Cora’s London past follows her to the coast, with striking consequences.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, The Essex Serpent masterfully explores questions of science and religion, skepticism and faith, but it is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different—and surprising—guises it can take. 

- (HARPERCOLL)

Annotations

In late-nineteenth century England, intellectually minded young widow Cora Seaborne and pious vicar William Ransome investigate rumors about a mythical sea creature that has been blamed for a death in coastal Essex. - (Baker & Taylor)

An American debut of an award-winning book from England is set in the late-19th century and follows the experiences of an intellectually minded young widow and a pious vicar who investigate rumors about a mythical sea creature that has been blamed for a death in coastal Essex. 50,000 first printing. - (Baker & Taylor)

An NPR and Kirkus Review Best Book of 2017, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction. Winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year and overall Book of the Year, selected as the Waterstones Book of the Year, and a Costa Book Award Finalist

"A novel of almost insolent ambition--lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate...it's part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home."  -New York Times

“An irresistible new novel…the most delightful heroine since Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice…By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature ‘from the illuminated margins of a manuscript’: friendship.”  -Washington Post

"Richly enjoyable... Ms. Perry writes beautifully and sometimes agreeably sharply... The Essex Serpent is a wonderfully satisfying novel. Ford Madox Ford thought the glory of the novel was its ability to make the reader think and feel at the same time. This one does just that." -Wall Street Journal

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.

While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.

These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

Hailed by Sarah Waters as "a work of great intelligence and charm, by a hugely talented author," The Essex Serpent is "irresistible . . . you can feel the influences of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Hilary Mantel channeled by Perry in some sort of Victorian séance. This is the best new novel I’ve read in years" (Daily Telegraph).

- (HARPERCOLL)

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