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Novels set in Essex: titles to add to your reading list

Spring is in the air, but the evening chill still demands a good book. So, where better to start than the titles set right here in the county? Here's some of the best to add to basket.


One of the most significant and arguably influential novels of the 20th century, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece follows the life of Winston Smith, a low ranking member of ‘the Party’, who tries to resist the totalitarian state he finds himself governed by. It’s thanks to this novel, published in 1949, that phrases like Big Brother, Room 101, Thought Police and Newspeak exist, and many argue that the novel foreshadowed everything from fake news to AI anxiety. However, what we do know that is that Orwell name checks Colchester at one point, declaring it ravaged by the warring fictionalised super states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.
1984, £20, Penguin

When God Was A Rabbit

This darkly comic, critically-acclaimed debut from Sarah Winman shuttles between suburban Essex (where protagonist Elly grows up), the wild Cornish coast and bustling streets of New York. It spans four decades. It asks the Big Questions. It even features a rabbit called God. But it’s Winman’s ability to expertly navigate the pull and power of family ties in her narration of loss and love that will keep you captive on the sun lounger. When God Was A Rabbit, £9.99, Headline

The Essex Serpent

Rooted firmly in author Sarah Perry’s home county and, more specifically, Aldwinter – a fictional town near Colchester that backs onto the Blackwater Estuary – The Essex Serpent has won a slew of awards for its eerie depiction of murder, mystery and monsters on the salt marsh. Set in 1893, we follow sometime heroine Cora Seaborne as she fleas her controlling, unhappy marriage to start over in the peaceful Essex countryside with her son. Cue a community in panic and a creature of folklore that refuses to loosen its grip for the ultimate gothic yarn. The Essex Serpent, £8.99, Serpent’s Tail

She Rises

It’s 1740 and Louise Fletcher is working as a young dairy maid before the lure of the ocean sees her relocate to Harwich, where life soon merges with warship sailor Luke, the haughty captain’s daughter Rebecca, and a crooked naval port drenched in smuggler’s secrets. This immersive coming of age tale by Kate Worsley is one to read with your toes wedged in the surf and a fizzing G&T on the go. She Rises, £12.99, Bloomsbury

Hiding From The Light

A spellbinding tale that weaves witchcraft and haunted cottages with romance and a rector on the edge, this gripping scorcher by Barbara Erskine is set in the mist-cloaked streets of Manningtree. Already hooked? Say hello to Emma Dickson – a former high-flyer who finds herself in the grips of something sinister with no way out… Hiding From The Light, £10.99, Harper Collins

Starter For Ten

Before bestselling author David Nicholls penned the chart-topping One Day and Us, he mastered his comic craft in Starter For Ten: a touching tale about love, class and growing up on campus in 80s’ Southend. It follows Brian Jackson, a hopeless hero who has one goal in life: to make it onto TV’s biggest general knowledge quiz show. But then his enigmatic teammate Alice Harbinson comes along and the ambition gets a kickstart. Now they have to win. Starter For Ten, £8.99, Hodder & Stoughton

Secret Water

Perfect for channeling your inner kid explorer (or reading aloud to little adventurers), this gem by Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome is set in Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze and follows John, Susan, Titty and Roger as they take on the job of mapping their way out of the mud flats. Expect nostalgia in buckets and spades as this charming story on the Essex coast unfolds and the Swallows turn a dull holiday into an epic family odyssey. Secret Water, £7.99, Red Fox

The Woman In Black

Hot on the beach? Hit Susan Hill’s white-knuckle ghost story for a sure-fire shiver fest. Set on a remote island cut off at high tide (depicted as Osea Island in the 2012 movie), this chilling east-coast thriller tells the tale of Jennet Humfryre – a vengeful mother who will stop at nothing (and no one) to haunt the grounds of Eel Marsh House. The Woman In Black, £8.99, Vintage Classics

The Peregrine

A truly gorgeous example of British nature writing, this highly-acclaimed poetic prose from JA Baker centres on the desolate marshes and fields surrounding Chelmsford, where Baker lived throughout his life. The book is, in many ways, a record of desire; an almost autobiographical account of his relationship with the wild and, in particular, his unrequited love affair with the skyward peregrines, who soar into the sun ‘like a bar of river gravel, golden-red’. Already feeling soothed? Just add golden hour and a glass of wine. The Peregrine, £12.99, Harper Collins

Check out local independent book stores Red Lion Books, Maldon Books and Wivenhoe Bookshop for stock enquiries.

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