The 1890s: a wealthy young widow moving to a new location; a village haunted by fear and superstition; sea-mists and strange effects of moonlight; experiments with hypnotism; the dread of tuberculosis; exchanges of letters to advance the plot - you might think you're in familiar territory here. But there is nothing hackneyed about Sarah Perry's handling of her materials.
Sarah Perry's characters spring from the page. The reader is soon enamoured of Cora Seaborne; newly released from an unhappy and even abusive marriage, she is no victim, but an energetic, independent and fiercely honest woman with a passion for fossil-hunting, drawn to Aldwinter by the serpent rumours. Could it be a living fossil, an ichthyosaurus that has somehow survived into the modern age? (I've only recently read and reviewed Tracy Chevalier's REMARKABLE CREATURES, whose heroine Mary Anning is frequently referred to here as an inspiration for Cora - viewed from the other side of Darwinism, as it were, more than fifty years after her astonishing finds.) Cora's free-thinking is matched by that of her companion, Martha, a socialist, who is acutely aware of class divisions and the inadequacy of London housing.
For all the novel's skilful plotting, with many well-drawn minor characters playing their part, the relationships seem to have the unpredictability of real life. Cora's experience of marriage has not inclined her to look for a new partner, yet she inspires love in at least three others, including the married clergyman Will Ransome. Although she and Will disagree on almost very point of faith and reason, he admires her as a sparring partner, and seeks her out for conversation. Cora's autistic son Francis, withdrawn, absorbed in his collections of strange objects, finds affinity with Will's consumptive wife and her obsession with the colour blue. Luke Garrett, a young surgeon who is central to the London part of the plot, is in love with Cora and quickly jealous of her affection for Will. The criss-crossing of relationships - the children's as well as the adults' - keeps the reader guessing to the end, as does the question of whether the serpent really exists. I hoped it wouldn't - but no spoilers.