Anything that was ever worth knowing began with once upon a time.
Everyone I know who’s read The Essex Serpent raved about it. It’s won multiple awards. It’s got a fancy exclusive Waterstones cover (not the one pictured here, but a blue one, which I only just now while typing ‘blue’ got the significance of). Even my dad knew about it, and asked if I wanted it for Christmas, which, yes.
I wanted to save it for a time when I could really get stuck in. I’d been distracted, struggling to focus, taking ages to read a page then forgetting what’s on it – this seems to be a theme with the early part of the year, the dark mornings and cold, grey weather, and I was various levels of unwell for all of January and Febraury. But when I found myself with a few hours to kill between work and visiting a friend, I decided that would be the perfect time to curl up with it and a pot of mint tea in the fifth floor cafe at Waterstones Piccadilly (a haven of peace and quiet for when it’s too cold or wet to sit in the park). As it turned out, it still took me a long time to read. I wanted to read it when nothing else was vying for my attention, but my half term became very busy, so I kept having to steal away with it.
I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t this. A Victorian novel, Dickens-esque for the bleak landscape and the characters just close enough to caricatures, but brighter, full of life and mystery and intrigue. With the jumping-off point of a death (too liberating to be called a bereavement, but a drastic change nonetheless), The Essex Serpent explores the notion, the appeal, oftent he reality that is familiar to many of us of dealing with things by flinging onself into a new interest and running away to somewhere different – in Cora’s case, leaving London behind in favour of Essex, and muddy boots. And then the mystery of a new community and the monster that plagues it, the juxtaposition of the church and the other rituals that comfort frightened people. Illness, injury, broken ties between friends, socialism, the battle between God and Science: The Essex Serpent has it all. It took me a while, but I relished it, and I’ll think of it when I’m in Inverness later this month, where another mysterious serpent lurks…
I read it in February, but The Essex Serpent has just come out in paperback, and it’s just as pretty as the two versions of the hardback.