When I lived in London, Waterstones was my favourite book shop; I was there almost weekly, making the most of their ‘3 for 2 deals’, which were innovative at the time. Every now and then, if I’m looking for a new book, I’ll check out their website for recommendations. And this is where I first stumbled upon Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent, which went on to win the British Book Award for 2016 Fiction Book of the Year, plus being voted Waterstones' overall Book of the Year. With each new accolade, it was pushed further up my reading list – and I finally found the time to devour it.
If you enjoyed Hannah Kent's The Good People, or Emma Donoghue's novel The Wonder, then this is your kind of book. It's a similar tale that contrasts established religion with pagan superstition, set in a wild and haunting landscape, during a specific, recognisable period in history.
There’s a lot to love about this book, but I especially enjoyed the characters. They’re likeable, independent, passionate people – whether their passion is for medical science, religion, social justice or palaeontology. And the relationships between these characters are the driving force of the novel.
The story is set in Victorian England in the year 1893 – a time of social change and scientific discovery. Wealthy Cora Seaborne has been recently widowed, providing relief from her uncaring and abusive husband. Seeking change, Cora casts off her ladylike London ways and moves to the untamed countryside of Essex to pursue her interest in fossils, taking both her autistic son Francis and his nanny (and Cora’s loyal companion) Martha.
Martha is a young intelligent working-class woman who is determined to improve the London housing crisis, where poor families are being forced out of their homes. She’s aware of the admiration of wealthy doctor George Spencer – a shy, affable man – and wonders whether she should encourage his affections, knowing his money and influence will help her cause.
When Cora, Francis and Martha arrive in Colchester, Essex, the locals are alarmed by a series of strange events occurring further up the estuary in Aldwinter; they fear the return of the Essex Serpent, rumoured to roam the marshland claiming human lives, which was last spotted in 1669 (Sarah Perry notes that this was an historical event, and the pamphlet alerting villagers to the presence of the serpent can be found at the British Library).
Cora is fascinated and sets out to learn more about the serpent, thinking it might be an undiscovered sea animal rather than a mythical creature.
Deeply superstitious, the locals wonder what they’ve done to make the mythical serpent return. But the Aldwinter vicar, William Ransome, does his best to allay their concerns and strengthen their belief in God, not superstition.
Cora and William soon strike up a close friendship – one which revolves around their spirited debates on religion and science, and faith versus reason. William is married to beautiful Stella, who he loves deeply, but he can’t shake his attraction to Cora, and he finds it hard to understand why he feels that way. After all, she gets about in a man’s oversized tweed coat, and makes no effort to beautify herself. Cora’s not your typical wealthy, attractive London woman. And this is her appeal.
Meanwhile, Luke Garrett is a leading London doctor who is pushing the boundaries of cardiac surgery, at a time in history when medical science is on the cusp of new discoveries. Much to the angst of his superiors, he is determined to perform an operation in order to save the life of Edward Burton, a man who was stabbed near St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as fame and fortune, Luke hopes his medical achievement will draw the attention of Cora – the woman he has loved ever since he tended her dying husband.
So, as you can see, this is a book of substance – yes, there’s romance, but there’s much more. Perry is a very talented writer whose descriptions are so vivid that you'll feel like you’re actually clambering over the wet and marshy Essex countryside, in search of the elusive serpent.