A Mini Review
The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail
When I first picked this up, drawn to it by the beautiful cover illustration and the fact that it was the Waterstones ‘Book of the Year’ 2016 and shortlisted for the Costa novel award 2016, I had high hopes. I thought it sounded engaging and thrilling with an interesting concept that excited me. I have a fairly eclectic taste in books but I was looking for something I could really get my teeth into and fall in love with. Unfortunately, as soon as I started reading The Essex Serpent, it started to irritate me. Now, this is entirely subjective and a completely personal opinion. I actually asked on social media for other reader’s options of it and got a mixed response, but there were a lot of people saying how much they loved it, how beautifully written it was how it was definitely one of their favourite books. I try very hard not to read forewords or author’s notes before I read a novel, because I like to make my own mind up about it, I like to be surprised and I like to go on a journey with a book and, for me, that involves not knowing it before hand, except through short reviews and recommendations. However, in this case I actually wish I had done, because I found the book so hard to place in a historical context without knowing the intentions of the author. There were not enough definite markers for me that would help me to place it, I couldn’t quite recognise the style of dress, housing or transport, even though all of these things are mentioned many times. I had it anywhere from Georgian right up to the 1950s, but it turned out to be a ‘Victorian novel’. I have now skimmed through the author notes and can understand what the intention was (to recognise that nothing much changes in people’s actions and the problems and superstitions which prevail in society) but for me that didn’t quite come through enough without some definite place markers.
Although I found the characters interesting, I never quite fell in love with any of them, I felt that I didn’t really know them well enough to do that. The book is written in such a style that it opens each chapter in a very scenic way, zooming in on the characters, as if starting a new story, I kept seeing the chapters opening up like a film, films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Shape of Water come to mind. But for me this stylised method of telling the story meant that the characters got separated far too much, causing me to keep checking to see where they fit in relation to other characters. I also felt it was a bit too romanticised, and there were scenes where I rolled my eyes a bit. For example, without wishing to ruin it for anyone, there’s a scene in a slum area of London where some upper middle class types are being shown round to highlight the housing crisis and we turn to see an urchin girl child smoking a cigarette in a torn and raggedy dress while wearing beautiful feathered fairy wings. One of the feathers floats down to land in a puddle as she flicks ash out into the street. I’m paraphrasing or paraphrasing the scene at least. It is like an Athena image of a poor child, the pedant in me insists that a girl in rags would not have own beautiful feathered fairy wings. There were quite a few scenes where I felt that way.
Having said all that, and I do feel bad because I wouldn’t want to criticise an author’s work, I did in fact stick with the book, right through to the end because I wanted to know what happened, and that’s a real skill for a novelist to have, to be able to suck someone in enough that even when they have doubts about their own enjoyment, they actually want to finish the book. I loved the idea of the serpent and the constant guessing, the manipulation of reality and imagination, and towards the end, in the last chapters when the characters are put to smaller tests of character and morality I felt they came to life a bit more, I started to feel sad on their behalf.
It’s not like anything I’ve read before, really, partly I guess because it does cross genres and maybe that just makes it difficult for my brain to contain it. Perhaps that’s why it is an award winner and so very popular. I would definitely recommend reading it for yourself and I would love to know your thoughts on it.