The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. It is written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just a short stroll from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.* Our third book is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.
Who doesn’t love a thing of beauty? Perhaps the most dazzling book to decorate our windows this year has been Sarah Perry’s widely acclaimed second novel The Essex Serpent. Set in London and Essex in 1893, it tells the tale of the young widow Cora Seaborne, newly emancipated by her husband’s death from a marriage which both formed and oppressed her.
Cora and her son Frances flee London to the tiny coastal parish of Aldwinter, where they hear thrilling tales of a mythical serpent that roams the estuary spreading darkness and mayhem. But Cora is not the sort to succumb to superstition: rather she is a keen naturalist, determined to prove that the beast which has set the small community alight is a previously undiscovered species.
In her quest she meets William Ransome, the married local vicar, and the intense friendship which blooms ultimately threatens to overwhelm them both. While Cora tramps about the countryside seeking evidence of her theories, Ransome watches powerless as his parish falls prey to delusion and moral panic, lighting fires to ward off evil and banning children from playing outdoors. As the community is slowly torn apart, Cora and William move towards each other like magnets: they delight and infuriate each other in equal turns, arguing endlessly about God, reason and the nature of faith.
They are watched by a vivid cast around them: William’s adored wife Stella, who herself is slowly succumbing to consumption; Cora’s stern female companion Martha, who embarks on a personal crusade to better the conditions of London’s poor; the prickly but talented surgeon Luke Garrett, whose unrequited love for Cora drives him almost to self-destruction; and his long-time friend George Spencer, who finds himself enthralled by Martha, but must ultimately seek solace in a different sort of love.
This is an intensely moving meditation on friendship and love in all its guises – where gender becomes almost superfluous, and where desire melds with something unnamable and infinitely more precious. Perry maps out the complexities of human relationships with enormous sensitivity. Both Cora and Will inhabit these pages so forcefully that they take root in us, and as readers we are at once both enthralled and complicit.
The book’s chapters are punctuated by letters which serve as confessionals, in which characters dare to speak with a candour they would not attempt in the flesh. The letters serve as testimony that even in moments of great despair, there is still wit and longing and beauty.
Perhaps even more beguiling, Perry has a poet’s ear for language and description, writing about the land in luminous prose that is often worthy of recitation: On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels. The Essex she conjours is almost unrecognizable to the modern reader – it is a wild place, remote and untamable. Enshrouded by fog, objects appear in the black waters of the estuary, mutate, then vanish just as quickly.
But at the heart of this book is Cora – clever, naïve, flayed by the past, irrepressible, almost impossibly sincere. And the Essex Serpent itself, the embodiment of not just our terrors, but our hungers, yearnings and fancies. Indulge yourself with this beautiful beast of a book. You won’t regret it.
Words by Betsy Tobin. Image of Sarah Perry by Jamie Drew.
*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of the next book and a TOAST scented candle.
Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase our book club titles from [email protected].