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.
The Essex Serpent takes us through a year, mainly in a rural community near the river Blackwater in Essex, and partly in London. On the first morning of the year a naked drowned man is found at the river's edge, his neck oddly twisted; this tragedy sets rumours flying of goats killed in the night, inexplicable stirrings in dark water and supernatural punishments for collective guilt, all of which the local vicar tries to combat with reassurances and prayers.
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.
In a recent Guardian interview, Sarah Perry said that she aimed for 'a version of the 19th century that, if you blinked, looked a little like ours. I wanted to write a version of the Victorian age that wasn’t a theme park of peasoupers and street urchins. The more I looked, the more I found that not a great deal has changed – an ineffectual parliament, the power of big business and the insecurity around housing. And contemporary Conservatism going back to this idea that morality and poverty are in some way linked.' Martha tells a wealthy acquaintance. "We are punishing poverty ... If you are poor, or miserable, and behave as you might well expect a poor and miserable person to behave, since there's precious little else to pass the time, then your sentence is more misery, and more poverty." She saw 'his wealth and privilege coat him like furs'.
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.
This complex, satisfying portrayal of characters poised on the brink of the modern age is held together by a fresh and exhilarating sense of place and atmosphere. There's relish and even black humour in Sarah Perry's descriptions of the river and marshes: '... something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air; the estuary surface shifts - seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if flinching at a touch. Nearer he goes, not yet afraid; the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay.'
And I shall certainly be looking out for noctiluminescence in late summer skies.