Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

14 Jul

That thing where you pick up a book and it feels as beautiful as it looks and there’s an energy about it that positively defies the use of a comma in your first sentence. Then you open the book and begin to read…

You’re not reading your way into a story. You’re not taking in the surroundings and building a picture in your head. You are quite delightfully and unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a feeling, a sensation. It’s a cold hand at the base of the spine, hairs lifting at the nape of your neck, bristling along your arms. It’s a whisperer, this book. It’s a body standing just behind your right shoulder where you can’t quite see it, unrolling the story in a hush across your ear. It is fabulous.


Cora Seagrave, recently widowed, finds herself on the Essex coast seeking evidence behind the rumours that abound of a terrible serpent that crawls up out of the sea to take livestock or people. Rational and independent, Cora believes something prehistoric to be at work, a ‘living fossil’. Just as steadfast in his belief there is a rational explanation – though naturally opposed to Cora’s reading of events – is local vicar William Ransome. As staunch as each other in their views, each recognises a kindred nature in the other and a turbulent time ahead is unavoidable. Skirting these warring friends are Cora’s companion, a staunch socialist, her autistic son Francis, her physician friend Luke Garrett and The Ambroses, moneyed and high-ranking conservatives. There’s a realness to all these people that is truly rare, no-one feeling as though they’ve been inserted to assist the plot or appearing not-quite-complete. For me, Luke Garrett is particularly vivid. There’s a palpable vibrancy about him, an intensity that borders on the audible.

Sometimes when writing these reviews I have to be very careful not to give away what a book is about. With The Essex Serpent, it’s hard to know where to start. Sarah Perry covers a monumental amount of ground with this book, it’s about so many things. Chief among them is that dark heart of the Venn diagram that is religion, science and superstition. Where does belief end and knowledge begin? Where is safety, where salvation? What’s truly exceptional about this book is that Sarah Perry asks those questions at every level, from the most intimate and individual to the broadest possible.

The language is glorious. There’s an almost biblical lilt to it at times, deepening the sense of place and moment, and heightening that creeping undertone that’s at the heart of the story. The passages that bring us up to date with recent events are prime examples of this. There’s a tone about them that could almost be tongue-in-cheek, relating the facts, filling us in. Yet that insidious voice lurks within them. Is it real, it asks, can you trust this? Is it what you think, or is it something else? Look at them, it says, back then on the verge of all that discovery. They thought they knew so much. But what about you? Do you think you know any more, any better?

One thing I can say for certain is that it’s an absolute delight to read, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be appearing on any number of shortlists by the end of the year.


The Essex Serpent was published by Serpent’s Tail on 27 May 2016 ISBN:9781781255445

You can find Sarah Perry on Twitter @sarahgperry and on her website


My thanks to Isabel Costello (who has a book of her own out, which you should also read) at the Literary Sofa for sending me this wonderful book.

3 Responses to “Van has finished reading…The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry”

  1. MyBookJacket 14/07/2016 at 7:49 am #

    Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been seeing this floating around and i want it so bad but it hasn’t released here yet. 😥 Hopefully soon. (Biblical? haha, that’s an interesting description, got me more curious now)

    • vanisreading 14/07/2016 at 9:19 am #

      It’s definitely worth the wait, and worth it for a physical copy too. The cover is lovely. With any luck you won’t have to wait too long!


  1. My top five reads of 2016 | vanisreading - 10/01/2017

    […] to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a […]

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