I’d give Essex Serpent a bunch of stars. Good book. Possible spoilers to follow.
Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, is set in coastal Essex, England, at the turn of the 20th century. Cora Seaborne is recently widowed, after suffering years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her deceased husband. She travels to a rural area in the company of her son (who is clearly on the autism spectrum, although this was not recognized at the time in which the novel is set) and her companion Martha, an ardent working class socialist. Her intention is to study and discover fossils and other natural curiosities. They fetch up in Aldwinter, a small town in the grip of hysteria over a possible Loch Ness style monster. Cora develops a relationship with William Ransome, the local preacher, who is married with children. William’s pretty wife, Stella, is dying of TB throughout the book and does not begrudge William and Cora their relationship. A plot ensues and people interact. In the end, there is no magical monster.
Okay, that’s the plot. Here are a few thoughts:
A scary serpent/creature/whatever is generally assumed to be a phallic symbols of sexuality. However, this guy seemed more likely to symbolise the darkness in all of us, or the darkness of superstition.
The relationship between Cora and William can be seen as an awakening after their respective periods of arrested development. During her marriage, Cora was subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Simply put, femininity and female sexuality did her no favors. She reacts by trying to start over, adopting the non-sexual clothing and curiosity of a child. William had a happy but very traditional marriage. Neither of them had had the experience of having a pal of the opposite sex.
Do you think they will be together after Stella dies?
The minor charachters are very well drawn – the old beggar, the red-haired fisherman’s daughter, the wealthy couple.