Book review: The Essex Serpent

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This will only be a short review as I find myself in a quandary with this book. I can’t figure whether I like it, beyond being faintly impressed with Perry’s hand at portraiture.

I’ve finished it, but I feel no closer to the characters inside it than I was when I began. I can appreciate the artistry in the novel – the world is meticulously created – but I didn’t feel like a great deal happened. Or, rather, that there wasn’t a great deal of narrative oomph going on. Things happen and there seems to be no real reason for it, just a continual sense of muddy wandering and vague striving. I’m reminded of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, though I’m uncertain if that’s for any reason beyond the interplay of rigidity and emotion.

I’d heard this book referred to as a kind of folk horror thing: a little like a starched-collar The Wicker Man, perhaps. I freely admit this interpretation probably coloured my approach, so when I finally got to grips with it, it didn’t seem anything like that. There’s ambience aplenty, but it doesn’t really do anything.

The novel is vaguely Lovecraftian in the way that terrible horrors are referenced (with shades of The Crucible, even) but never really developed. It’s gothic, sort of, and there’s a decent kind of Charlotte Perkins Gilman feel to a secondary storyline later in the book, but overwhelmingly it feels like it’s a couple of structural edits short of a purpose.

True, the book has a lot of positive press – and I do feel positively towards it, despite all my reservations – but I wonder if both these things are because of its inscrutability. I mean, it must be deep, right? I must be just misreading it?


So yeah. Three stars: the characters, particularly Cora, are drawn well. But the narrative doesn’t make me care about what happens to them, and I’m left feeling short-changed at the end. Maybe it’ll make a lot more sense to me in ten years, but I wonder whether I’ll have the wherewithal to give it another stab, even then.
My Goodreads profile is here.

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