Jul 11, 2021wyenotgo rated this title 3.5 out of 5 stars
I’m not at all sure where to shelve this one; it’s a period piece, set in 1893 and it struck me that Sarah Perry was (consciously or not) seeking to emulate the style of Thomas Hardy or perhaps George Eliot. And some of her Essex characters certainly brought to mind those authors. On the other hand, as she decries the extreme abuses wrought by privileged classes upon the working poor, echoes of Dickens’ social exposés come to mind. Although set in a particular time and place, an historical novel it is not.
In keeping with late 19ty century fiction, Perry introduces a substantial parade of characters, some of whom are relevant to the plot while others only serve to fill in the setting by displaying local customs, beliefs and behavior. The relationships among the major characters, especially between Martha and others, are complex and their motivations at times are a bit obscure. Cora and William are deeply conflicted personalities and Perry gets a lot of mileage out of the troubled love/hate/friendship/adversarial relationship between them. In the end, I think I was satisfied with how she resolved William’s personal and moral dilemma but I was never able to find my way into an innermost understanding of Cora. Perhaps that renders her the most true-to-life personality of the lot; nothing in her situation is clear cut. There was one character who I felt offered more possibilities than Perry chose to pursue, that of Francis, who dwells somewhere on the Asperger spectrum. A mostly silent observer of the human drama around him, he clearly understands more, in his peculiar fashion, than he is credited for and I would have appreciated further exploration of his worldview; but doing so might have forced Perry to step away from her determined 19th century POV.
But what of the title character: the serpent? It is more than a literary device but less than the engine driving the plot. It hovers at every corner and haunts the lives of almost everyone. It serves to create dramatic tension. But in the end, this is essentially a romance, in the same way that “Phantom of the Opera” is a romance. The serpent offers atmosphere while the main protagonists attempt to sort out their passions.
On a final note, I felt that the liberal inclusion of letters among the characters was very effective, revealing much more about the characters than might have been achieved by narration or even dialogue. They even frequently served to move the plot along while keeping the characters front and center.