The Essex Serpent focuses on a conflict between Science, represented by Cora Seaborne, and Religion, represented by Rev. Will Ransome. Unfortunately, both pursue the “Lite” version of their vocations and their conflicts quickly dissipate into epistolary arguments. Frankly, I was bored by all their philosophical musings and forced myself to finish the last, tedious pages.
Admittedly, setting the book in the village of Aldwinter, Essex was an inspired choice; Essex was the site of a famous witch trial and of a previous hysteria over a supposed sea serpent. There are many references to serpents throughout the book: the sea creature blamed for all the villagers’ troubles; a child’s webbed fingers; and, the engravings on a pew. However, the author presents the Aldwinter locals as dimwits for believing in the serpent, which comes across as snobbish, particularly because Cora is herself drawn too easily into believing in the serpent.
Several of the characters are in love with Cora: Martha, her maid; Luke, her doctor; and quickly, Will himself. The love story between Cora and Will seems predictable, but unfortunately their union lacks anything but intellectual passion. One is left with the impression that they are as happy to be apart, writing letters to each other, as to be together.
Most disconcertingly, the book contains an utterly gratuitous child molestation scene. The scene serves almost no purpose to the larger plot and has little apparent effect on the character subjected to the abuse. Why include it?
Many reviewers have commented on the quality of the prose, and there is much about the writing that is beautiful. However, Perry has trouble maintaining a consistent point of view and there is a great deal of ineffectual head-hopping.
Readers who love Victorian literature might enjoy this book. I do, but for many reasons, The Essex Serpent left me cold.