Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It is 1893 and in England there is a movement towards science and discovery.  The work of Darwin and his compatriots is discussed by educated people everywhere and medicine is starting to make huge advances.  Women are starting to break free of the strictures that have kept them bound, destined only for housework and a life where even their clothes restrict their daily movements.

Cora Seaborne is one of the women who are interested in more than a marriage.  She has just been widowed and is not full of grief.  Her husband was a cruel, domineering, physically and emotionally abusive man and his death feels like an opening of the prison gates.  Still in her early thirties, Cora decides to get out of the London house which seems like a prison.  Determined to emulate the women naturalists she admires, she decides to visit the Essex countryside with its waterways and wild vistas.  She is accompanied by her eleven year old son, Francis, and his nanny and her friend, Martha.

Cora revels in the Cornish countryside.  She walks for hours every day, unafraid.  She deserts her London fashions and dresses in men's clothes.  She talks to anyone she wants and soon meets many of the Cornish country people.  There is a rumor going around that a mythological creature, The Essex Serpent, has returned to sow destruction and she is determined to get to the bottom of the myth.  Is it a creature that has never been discovered and might she be the one to do so? 

Her friends in London worry about her and introduce her to the local vicar and his family. Stella and William Ransome are a young couple with three children who love the countryside and their lives.  Stella is a fragile woman, beautiful and warm while William is deeply committed to his religion and to improving the lives of the people around them.  He is concerned about the talk of the Serpent and how the rumors are changing the people and making them scared and more prone to falling back into ancient way. 

When Cora and William meet, they soon become best of friends.  Both are interested in the same things and both are addicted to long walks.  They talk about everything and anything, although Cora has no time for religion and they disagree vehemently about this. It becomes obvious to everyone around them that there is more than friendship growing between them although they themselves seem not to realize it.  How will it end?

This novel is a lush exploration of the time period and highly lauded.  It was nominated for the Bailey's Women's Prize in Literature.  It was an NPR and Kirkus Best Book, a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year and the winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book.  The characters are finely drawn, the issues of social justice, women's emancipation and forbidden love are explored in ways that keep the reader turning pages.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

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