The Essex Serpent

Written by Sarah Perry
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

The 2016 UK edition of The Essex Serpent received widespread acclaim, and the novel is sure to garner an enthusiastic U.S. audience as well. Inspired by reports from 1669 of a winged serpent which plagued (or appeared to have plagued) Henham-on-the-Mount in the Essex countryside, Sarah Perry imagined such a beast visiting late 19th-century Essex, when evolution was a thrilling (or horrifying) new theory and educated men and women set out to find fossils in the country.

Perry’s novel is the brilliant fruit of this imagination. Dickensian in scope, depth, and exquisite use of language, The Essex Serpent reveals the landscapes, links, and conflicted longings of a fascinating cast of characters. A widow liberated by death from an abusive husband and her (probably) autistic son rebuild their lives with bits of bones and shells; a pious vicar confronts unwelcome passions, collisions of faith and science, the ravages of tuberculosis, and a traumatized congregation. A gifted surgeon utterly devoid of social skills struggles to heal himself.

With a deft hand, Perry takes us into class struggles, politics, women’s issues, and the profound anxieties that marked these times. At once love story and mystery, deeply penetrating layered characters with wit and grace, The Essex Serpent reveals the mundane beast that spawned wild rumors, and the stranger, less easily unmasked beasts within us.