October’s book group choice is Sarah Perry’s second novel, the Sunday Times bestseller, The Essex Serpent, an atmospheric, eerie, fin de siècle tale set in the Essex marshes.
Sarah Perry’s PHD was in the Gothic – she also has a creative writing MA – and her love of “a strangeness and a darkness in things… a feeling that brimstone is never far from the soles of my feet” suffuses The Essex Serpent. Set between London and Essex towards the end of the 19th Century, Perry’s book successfully captures a high-Victorian Gothic sensibility within a novel of ideas, and conjures a world in which the reader becomes so embroiled, one can’t help but continue reading long after one should have gone to bed, which is for me, always a sign of a brilliant book.
It’s a beguiling and compulsive read, and I am dying to talk about it at the Books That Built Me book group on October 27th at Waterstones High Street Kensington. We start at 6.15 and there is no charge to attend, but it’s helpful if you let me know you’re coming so that I know how much wine to put in the fridge….and if you’d like to talk about it, or can’t make it to High Street Kensington, then please join the conversation on Facebook from 6th October.
It is still in hardback, but at £14.99 it’s less punchily priced than many, and the design of the dust-jacket is so beautiful, it’s worth the investment (and if you buy it at Waterstones HSK, you can get 10% off if you say you’re coming to the Books That Built Me book club – please ask at the upstairs till.)
London, 1893. Widowed Cora Seaborne leaves London with her son Francis, a curious, obsessive boy, for a new life in Essex where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they seek. Rumours reach them of the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, said to have returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who shares Cora’s suspicion of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in entirely unexpected ways.
Read the FT review by Books That Built Me alumni, Alex Preston, here.
[approximate time to read: 8 days at a reading speed of approx 40 pp a day – whilst Perry’s writing is literary and beautifully crafted, she is generous and kind with her reader – no endless Henry James style sentences – added to which, her plotting is sharp and pacy and her characters compelling, all of which keep the pages turning]
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry. Published by Serpents Tail, price £14.99.