“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry (Custom House, 2016)

As the white cliffs of Dover soar above the Atlantic, the Essex shoreline on the English Channel is low and muddy with river estuaries.  This mud sets the tone for the Gothic novel The Essex Serpent.  Mud that clings to clothing; mud that seizes boots and shoes forever lost; mud that pulses with brackish tidal water.

Freed by the death of her husband from an abusive marriage, Cora Seaborne escapes from Victorian London, loses her corset, and her elegant town house to embrace the plain life of Colchester in Essex, a bit northeast of London.  She is accompanied by her adolescent son, Francis, and his nanny and Cora’s companion, Martha. Dear friends from London figure in the story, but the plot develops around the denizens of Colchester.

The novel is full of Dickensian characters including the wry parson and his sprightly wife, old fishermen, curious children, learned physicians.  All spin around Cora and her trip from death and desolation to redemption.  The time is Victorian—London is a bustling, electrified city while Colchester still lives in the dark, lamp-wise and spiritually.  The myth of The Essex Serpent and it’s resolution reflect the seismic change that is coming to rural England with the 20th Century.

The themes of spirituality, demonism, and unrequited love, along with the intense observations of the writer reminded me of A. S. Byatt.  But, as dense as Byatt’s writing is, Perry writes in a flowing manner that quickly moves the story along.

Highly recommended – the best “new” novel I’ve read in several years.