"I was there! I saw what you saw, I felt what you felt. As ever. Cora"
The Essex Serpent is the second novel from Sarah Perry and was published earlier this year with reviews in the Sunday Times which hailed it "One of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade. Lofty praise indeed but as a fan of Gothic fiction; from Stoker to Poe and Shelley to Walpole, I was looking forward to getting stuck in.
In Perry's novel we meet recently widowed Cora who leaves London for Essex upon reports that the mysterious 'Essex Serpent' has returned. Initially the serpent is little more than myth from a superstitious rural outpost far from the modernity of the City. Indeed, the novel is brilliantly evocative of the Essex marshes and the spirt in which the Provinces are more often that not portrayed in Victorian fiction.
Cora Seaborne is a strong willed woman with flair, intellect and the ability to influence those around her including young London Doctor Luke Garett. Its her interest in science and geology which initially draws her to the case of the Essex Serpent but its her faith that is ultimately the driving force. Her interest in fossils, and "having her name on the wall in the British Museum" is seemingly stronger than that in her own son Francis but Perry doesn't explore this quite enough, presumably to make more of the tension built up as locals disappear and sightings of the serpent increase. Regrettebly this tension leads nowhere.
The best parts of the narrative are told in letter form, this worked brilliantly in Bram Stoker's Dracula as a way to push the story forward. The trouble is that in The Essex Serpent there is simply not enough story.
For me, this is Victorian gothic pastiche. To see how the genre has evolved pick up a copy of David Michell's Slade House which contains all the Gothic tropes and a whole lot more.
I read this novel on Kindle in part in Margate during the weekend of the brilliant Margate Bookie