There’s something lurking in the waters of Aldwinter, near Colchester, towards the end of the nineteenth century and recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a keen fossil hunter is determined to find out what it is. Could it be the Essex Serpent rumoured to have terrorised villagers over 200 years ago?
This is a very good quality Victorian-set novel which features, unsurprisingly, the themes of superstition versus rational thought , Darwinism against established religious beliefs and the fear that despite the growth of scientific understanding and medical advances there may just be primitive, natural, environmental things lurking that no-one can comprehend.
Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed second novel has already scooped the Waterstone’s Book Of The Year award. Its cover by Peter Dyer based upon a William Morris design certainly looks stunning in book shop windows and the whole look and structure of the book with its quotes from the actual seventeenth century pamphlet warning of the dangers of the serpent, the use of correspondence in the text and its chronological structure through the months of 1893 are all impressive and shout out quality fiction.
Perry creates a convincing set of characters. Cora, released from an abusive marriage receives attention from the doctor who attended her husband but finds stronger attraction to the village’s vicar, a family man with a consumptive wife. The threat of the serpent looms throughout giving the book a rich edginess, which together with its warm humour works very well.
I think in all aspects this is a strong work but for me it didn’t quite have the extra something which would put it up amongst the very best of the Victorian historical literary novel. I’m thinking John Fowles “French Lieutenant’s Woman” , Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and particularly Michael Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”. These authors developed upon the Victorian cliff-hanger technique to bring us real surprises in the plot which is what makes them so memorable but I didn’t feel that happened here, and I was expecting it to. Perhaps I was just looking forward to reading it too much. It is, however, a very welcome addition to my bookshelves of another very good 21st century evocation of the nineteenth century novel.
The Essex Serpent was published (appropriately) by Serpent’s Tail in May 2016. Many thanks to the publishers and to newbooks for the review copy.