Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is a novel of almost insolent ambition — lush and fantastical, a wild Eden behind a garden gate. Set in the Victorian era, it’s part ghost story and part natural history lesson, part romance and part feminist parable. It’s wonderfully dense and serenely self-assured. I found it so transporting that 48 hours after completing it, I was still resentful to be back home ... Perry’s writing engages the senses. You can almost smell the brine, the oyster, the 'secretive scent of fungus clinging to the oak' ... But the real abundance here is of feelings between characters, not all of them sentimental. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book in which a man and a woman quarrel quite so much, and quite so forcefully, without something devastating coming of it.
... irresistible ... an absorbing story told in a style that’s antique without being dated, rich but never pretentious. The narrative sometimes shifts into an interchange of intimate letters, a bittersweet reminder of what we gave up to send each other emoji and self-destructing snapshots. Raised on the classics and the Bible, Perry creates that delicate illusion of the best historical fiction: an authentic sense of the past — its manners, ideals and speech — that feels simultaneously distant and relevant to us ... By the end, The Essex Serpent identifies a mystery far greater than some creature 'from the illuminated margins of a manuscript': friendship.
The Essex Serpent is a very fine and intelligent novel; not only that, but a richly enjoyable one. Ms. Perry writes beautifully and sometimes agreeably sharply ... The Essex Serpent is most easily discussed as a novel of ideas, and it is indeed that, and a very good one. But it has the virtues of the traditional novels, too: a strong narrative full of surprises; thoroughly imagined characters whose relationships with one another are credible and complicated; and those descriptive passages which not only paint a picture but create an atmosphere. In short, The Essex Serpent is a wonderfully satisfying novel.
It is a novel of ideas, though its sensibility is firmly, consciously, even a little cheekily, gothic ... Perry artfully exploits her monster’s symbolic potential, leaving the reader to sort the many subtexts from the good red herrings, displaying both with a collectorly enthusiasm, on equal terms ... Perry extends her considerable generosity not just to her characters but to the whole late Victorian period, with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future; at the same time she is asking clearly, how do we do better than that? Life is an excitable medium. Every thoughtless act knocks on. How do we forgive, mend, give ourselves space to breathe, move forward?
The best kind of nature writing celebrates not the placidly, distantly picturesque — mountaintops and sunsets — but the near, dank, and teeming. The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry's gloriously alive historical novel, squirms with bugs, moss and marsh ... Perry is good at catching the special collective dread that enflames communities — the fear that something sinister is stirring, waiting just out of sight. That gives a special magnetism to a story that needed none ... At its very best moments, when it shows how love, death, and regeneration all go hand-in-hand, The Essex Serpent is so painfully lovely that it removes a bit of that padding, only just as much as we can bear.
There are set pieces reminiscent of Charles Dickens and nods to Arthur Conan Doyle and other Victorian writers in The Essex Serpent, but Cora's literary foremother is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She shares Jane's fierce independence and disdain for the expectation of feminine vanity ... Perry borrows much of her style and structure from Victorian gothic and romance novels, but infuses it all with a decidedly 21st century sensibility. Like our own, the Victorian era was a time of enormous social and cultural upheaval as well as rapid technological and scientific change. Perry weaves all of those elements into the lives of her engaging, often surprising characters to tell a story of new science and old magic and the ever-restless human heart.
While Cora is a compelling enough character, it is in the supporting cast that the novel really finds its life ... Perry takes apart our preconceptions of prim Victorian mores with gusto. The Essex Serpent is a historical novel with an entirely modern consciousness, and is every bit as gripping and unusual as its predecessor.
Perry’s prose is rich, textured, and intricate. You may recognize a bit of A.S. Byatt in the way Perry leaps into her characters’ philosophical debates, but she is at her lushest and most original when she can describe the natural world — not lyrically, but in a gothic mode, all rotting and fecund vegetation and marshy ground. Perry’s landscape is almost painfully alive, and that makes it redemptive: Her characters are only able to be completely honest with each other when they are outdoors. The Essex Serpent is a phenomenon in the UK, where it won the British Book Award and has sold more than 200,000 copies. Its reception in the US has been slightly quieter, but it deserves all the praise it’s won across the pond. It’s a thoughtful and elegant book about the human need for knowledge and love, and about the fears and desires we bury.
...a novel that triumphs on every level, whether in its rich, evocative prose or its authentic Victorian detail, its credible, multifaceted characters or its high-stakes drama ... The Essex Serpent mines the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, the antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James and the social woes that run deep in Dickens’ later works. The book’s focal point, though, is Perry’s network of relationships, not least the dynamic interplay between polar opposites Cora and William.
Throughout The Essex Serpent, Perry’s command of language as a tool to evoke time and place proves remarkable. One can feel the Victorian push-and-pull between scientific understanding and long-held pagan fears, as children cast spells and men hang animals for protection. The threat of a prehistoric beast feels real—until a wry joke from Cora or William clips its wings. This, combined with the emotional depth between characters, creates something wholly unique. Intimacy and humor coexist alongside anxiety and fear, forging a narrative that is compelling and chilling by turns.
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).
...a dazzling and intellectually nimble work of Gothic fiction ... It’s a sign of Perry’s narrative elegance that she’s able to weave into her story’s Gothic frame two very different aspects of 19th century cultural life: the burgeoning field of natural science, with Darwin’s evolutionary theory spurring interest in paleontology and geology; and the fraught arena of Christian belief, which seemed challenged by such scientific developments. The Essex Serpent is a remarkably good novel of ideas. It’s also remarkably well written, with fine descriptions of both the natural world and the human body, as in this crystallization of stunted marital intimacy.
...one of the most satisfying Victorian-set novels I’ve read in years ... While the serpent itself proves a slippery beast, Perry brilliantly describes how fear can slither through a population, mesmerizing as it goes ... The nature of faith and faith in nature intertwine throughout Perry’s novel, which has an abiding respect for friendship and a deep humanity.
The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things should prepare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands. Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.
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.