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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

PerryEssexThe Essex Serpent represents the best in current historical fiction. A second novel by British author, Sarah Perry, it was named Book of the Year by the Waterstone’s Bookstore. Set in 1893, the book explores many themes—among them, friendship, science vs. religion, the role of women in Victorian England, the class divide, and social conditions and mores of the times. The writing is highly evocative and calls to mind the writings of other Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Like Dickens, Perry highlights the squalor of the London slums. Perry also illuminates advances in medicine and surgery, including the first open-heart surgery and the prevailing treatment of tuberculosis in the late 19th century.

 

The main character is Cora Seaborne—a young widow formerly married to a sadistic older man. Now free to live as she chooses, she embraces her early passion for collecting fossils and roaming the English shores. Like others of her class, she is influenced by Darwin’s publication, The Origin of the Species, first published in 1876.When she visits Essex, Cora falls in love with the sheer wildness of the place. There, she befriends the local pastor and his family and learns about the Essex Serpent—a mythical creature dating back centuries. The plot is driven by Cora’s desire to determine whether the monster really exists.

 

In a book review for NPR, Annalisa Quinn writes:

It can't be an accident that Perry placed her story about collective panic in Essex. Not only was there really a mythical winged serpent that terrorized locals there in the 17th century, but it was the location of the notorious Essex witch trials. The self-styled Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, traveled through the county, cutting women to see if they bled — if not, they were witches. Perry is good at catching the special collective dread that enflames communities — the fear that something sinister is stirring, waiting just out of sight. That gives a special magnetism to a story that needed none [The Essex Serpent Spreads Its Wings,NPR, June 10, 2017].

The Essex Serpent is a must-read and sure to be one of the top literary picks of 2017.

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