The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry | Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

On the morning that Brexit was officially announced, I was furiously reading the news. I was so focussed on being furious that when I got up to change trains at Rayners Lane, I left my copy of The Essex Serpent behind on the seat and wailed as it slowly drove away.

Why was I so sad, you may ask? Well, apart from the destruction of the European Union, I’d only left arguably the best book of the year on that train, didn’t I?

Frantic tweets were sent out and shared by Sarah Perry herself in the hope that we could reunite my poor nude copy – I had taken the dust cover off as I habitually rip them accidentally. Even lovely Sceptre, who had sent me it, assisted in the search – again, sorry guys. Unfortunately TFL failed me a little and never found my copy, and so after a few weeks I bought a new copy and lovingly devoured it at home, alongside my spare dust jacket.

If anyone has any ideas of what I can do with the spare dust jacket, please do say.

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The Essex Serpent follows recently widowed Cora Seabourne from her home in London into the wilds of Essex, on the hunt for scientific mysteries and hot on the trail of the mysterious serpent she’s heard tale of. Cora moves to the parish of Aldwinter, where she meets the local vicar, William Ransome, and a friendship like no other is borne. Will is religion, and Cora is science – their very relationship itself epitomises the Victorian crisis of faith. Their lives entangle deeper and deeper as they follow the mystery of The Essex Serpent and a number of strange goings on in Aldwinter.

Cora and Will take the main focus of the story, but I also loved the subplots involving her friends – furious feminist and socialist Martha and experimental physician Luke Garrett, both fighting for a future they see on the horizon. Perry’s character work is phenomenal, creating the luminous Stella Ransome and strange, curious Francis – a character I definitely read as autistic. This book absolutely sings with humanity, with complex people.

This dark gothic mystery is more than my review can ever do justice to. It is creepy and succulent and wonderful stuff, and reads like Sarah Waters by way of a naturalist, without the lesbians.

“I will be shocked if it isn’t weighed down in book prizes this time next year,” I said on an Instagram post back in August.

I knew that it was something special from the moment I laid hands on it, and was pushing it on everyone in both the shop and my personal life. I am happy to say there have been quite a few converts who came back to say how much they loved it too.

They say never judge a book by its cover, but The Essex Serpent boasts the most stunning dust cover I’ve seen in a long time. In celebration of its status as much coveted Waterstones Book of the Year, a special edition blue and silver version has been released.


Fans of the story will realise why blue is such a very good choice for this.

While it didn’t scoop the Costa Award last year’s  winner, The Lie Tree, shares so many gothic-fossil-hunting elements with The Essex Serpent that it made so much sense for it to take the prize.

I am really pleased it won Waterstones Book of the Year. I was still working for the company back when nominations were open, and wrote an essay much longer than this blog post, with significantly less punctuation, about why it should win.

It’s an impossibly strong novel that will stand up well against it’s contenders in the Bailey’s Prize longlist. I’m going to say now that I’m positive it will make the shortlist. THERE I SAID IT.

Have you read it yet? Let me know in the comments your thoughts and predictions!

Want to get your copy? Pick up the normal Hardback here or the Waterstones Exclusive Hardback here!

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