London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned to roam the marshes.
Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…
Last year, I encountered this book in literally every Waterstones I went into. No surprise, since it’s their Book of the Year 2016. There is a point where, if I have seen a book with a beautiful cover and an appealing description enough times, I will eventually succumb and buy it. I was on holiday in the UK, had finished all of my books and there it was. Come on, look at it!
Relationships take different forms
As you can hardly miss in the last sentence of the blurb, the focal point of this book is the age-old question whether men and women can be friends. This storyline is set up in quite an interesting way, but ultimately fails to deliver. (Or maybe I’m just put out because it didn’t end the way I wanted it to.) I suggest you read over this, though, and focus instead on what I think are the more interesting relationships in the novel: the effects of Cora’s horrible marriage on her idea of self, her strained contact with her son, and her closeness with her companion Martha that is telegraphed quite strongly as more than just friends. Then there is Stella Ransome’s relationships with her children and husband, her daughter Joanna’s behaviours at school – the list goes on. Ultimately, it is Martha, not Cora who finds a gratifying answer to the When Harry met Sally question, and it is her rare conversations with her female friends that round off the novel more than any of the events that follow.
You cannot always keep yourself away from things that hurt you. We all wish that we could, but we cannot: to live at all is to be bruised. I don’t know what has come between you and your friends, but I know that none of us was made to be alone.
(From a letter of Katherine Ambrose)
Believable historical fiction
Cora is a very modern woman: she decides what she needs to feel better and does it, wears oversized men’s coats and emerald ballgowns as she pleases, and is not afraid to pick a good fight. However, the book doesn’t feel anachronistic at all. One of the main things I love about this story is how the people in the village believe that the Essex Serpent might be a dinosaur. They combine their superstitions with the science of the day, Darwinism, and conclude that this creature must have escaped extinction in some way. At the same time, they place a lot of importance on the role of the church. Moreover, although Katherine’s advice to Cora is very wise, it still urges her in some way to ‘act her gender’, referring back to the idea of the woman as the weaker sex:
You told me once you forget you are a woman, and I understand it now – you think to be a woman is to be weak – you think ours is a sisterhood of suffering! Perhaps so, but doesn’t it take greater strength to walk a mile in pain than seven miles in none? You are a woman, and you must begin to live like one. By which I mean: have courage.
In short, the characters appear well grounded in the ideas of their time, without reflecting any kind of 21st century gaze. They are not judged but appreciated for believing that they are modern thinkers.
The writing style of The Essex Serpent is elegant, but not fluffy, and effectively brings across the atmosphere of green hills, crooked trees, vast (and slightly damp) fields and very few people, all accompanied by the rushing of waves in the background. There is a part for every month of the year, which makes you feel that you are an observing villager, rather than a reader of a fictional world. Each month starts with the present tense to set up a scene, and then tells the story in the past tense. I hadn’t seen this before and it took me a moment to get used to it, but when I did it was very refreshing.
Overall, the story did lack some rising- and falling action. Especially because the central relationship was not the most interesting to me, it lacked build up to what I presume is its climax. In some way, this echoes the not unpleasant motif of the quiet country village, but it fails to keep you hooked. If you have the time, do pick this book up and allow the writing and three-dimensional characters make up any shortcomings in the story itself.