When a body is washed up from the Blackwater, old rumours start to circle again in Essex. The serpent has awoken, they say.
With leathery wings and snapping beak, it has returned to wreak divine judgement upon us all.
But pragmatic local vicar William Ransome is unconvinced, fearing the creature to be a symptom of his parish’s flight from faith.
Only with the help of newly widowed naturalist, Cora Seaborne can he hope to dispel the gossip.
But as the pair stumble deeper into their investigation, can even the Essex Serpent distract them from their growing mutual attraction?
The Essex Serpent is the second novel of English author and journalist, Sarah Perry.
Essex-born Perry had a devout Christian upbringing, which immersed her in classical music and literature and still influences her writing today.
With a PhD in creative writing from Royal Holloway University, Perry continues to work as a legal journalist and writes on the arts for a number of publications including: The Spectator, The Guardian, and The Oldie.
Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was published in 2014 and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and received the East Anglian Book of the Year Award in 2014.
The Essex Serpent won Waterstones Book of the Year 2016 and, as a result, books with a special celebratory cover can be purchased exclusively from the stores (as modelled on my copy above).
The novel is written as a third person narrative, which exquisitely explores the social interactions of a variety of characters around the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter.
I originally bought a copy of the novel after witnessing the buzz that seems to surround the text, especially towards the latter end of last year.
I must say that it certainly went above and beyond my initial expectations. There are so many golden gems in this book, I really wouldn’t know where to begin.
I could talk endlessly about leading characters and a supporting cast that are wonderfully crafted and designed; settings which appear both authentic and convincing and a masterfully engaging plot.
But more than that, there’s something very special about this novel and I have yet to find a work of historical fiction quite like it. The quality of writing itself is sublime and sets it apart from the rest of the marketplace.
It also works to counteract a lot of the stereotypes associated with the time period – of frivolous and submissive wives, crippling religious fervour and stifling sexual taboos.
The themes are fresh and so are the characters – no stock figures or two-dimensional caricatures here.
Another of Perry’s triumphs is the characterisation of Cora’s autistic son, Francis, whom himself has some deeply interesting narrative sections to explore.
One thing I will point out to potential readers is that this is not a novel for the squeamish.
There are some detailed sections about cutting edge Victorian surgery, and whilst fascinating for some – the graphic passages will not be to every readers tastes.
Overall, though, it was a truly marvellous book – one I personally struggle to fault – and is certainly more than worth all the recent attention it’s received.
Published by Serpent’s Tail in May 2016, The Essex Serpent retails at £14.99 (as does the exclusive Waterstones edition). The paperback edition will be release this April and will retail at £8.99.