During one of those serendipitous moments in which something happens that doesn't amount to anything earth-crashing, but you're very happy about, I happened upon a book review in the Daily Telegraph. The reviewer wrote that The Essex Serpent was the best new book she had read in years. That's a hefty claim to make. After looking up a few more reviews I whipped of an email to a colleague who orders books for the library, ordered a copy for myself, and then waited for the mail van.
Set in Victorian London, Sarah Perry makes quick work of getting the hairs on the back of your neck to tingle as a man full of drink after celebrating New Year's Eve stands at the bank of the Blackwater. The very name already conjuring up a fearful image. From the synopsis the reader knows that a rumour is circulating about a beast in the water. Bodies wash up on shore with horrible injuries, children are snatched from boats. Despite starting The Essex Serpent in the middle of the day it wasn't long before my knees were drawn up, a crease formed between my brows and if the phone rang it was going unanswered.
Cora Seaborne is recently widowed but when alone risks a slight smile as her husband was a cruel man. During Michael Seaborne's illness Cora met Luke Garret, a doctor with advanced ideas and incredible skill. The two form a strong friendship through their curiousity of things both scientific and natural, and stimulating conversation. Cora eschews finery in favour of a man's tweed coat and boots made to wade through mud. A large diamond on her hand belies the initial impression of someone in need. Cora harbours no desire to be gazed at and treated like fine china. Her son, Francis, who appears to have symptoms of autism, is kind but distant. His nanny, Martha, is a strong socialist and there's little doubt that she's in love with, and very protective of, Cora.
When dear friends, Charles and Katherine Ambrose, learn that Cora means to satisfy her own thoughts and pursuits in her quest to discover more about fossils and a mysterious serpent, they suggest meeting the Ransomes. William is a vicar who is as comfortable tramping around the wilderness as standing behind the pulpit. His wife Stella seemingly grows more beautiful every day despite the tuberculosis that festers in her lungs. I loved her obsession with all things blue.
'Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the wood of the polished table, and Stella's forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.'
So who can resist scenes of Victorian London, experimental surgery in an age of discovery, tales of a terrifying beast slithering under the water, and several relationships fueled by letters with veiled references to romantic longing? The forests of Essex and a murky estuary contribute to a vivid landscape that feels as though Perry has placed you in their midst.
One of the things that struck me about this story is that despite being set in the 1890s there's a modern feel about the writing. It's far from being mired in the heavy fabrics, swirling fogs, and gaslight of a pastiche. Some of the characters Perry has brought to life are forward thinkers and therefore modern for the age they're living in.
I loved this book. It's the kind of reading experience you hope for every time you start a book but only comes along a few times a year....if you're lucky. To sink into a story with the abandon you had as a child without deadlines, clock-watching, a job, or domestic responsibilities. The Essex Serpent is a new favourite for its stellar writing and being a sheer delight.