Of all the books I was lucky enough to get for Christmas, this one probably has the most delightful cover. I don’t care that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I will anyway, and this one is lovely. It also does rather fit the subject matter, the William Morris-esque look is reminiscent of the Victorian setting and the style is just Gothic enough to hint at themes in the book.
The novel follows Cora Seaborne, after the death of her brutal but powerful husband, an event she publicly mourns (at least at first) but is privately relieved by. She travels to the coastal village of Aldwinter with her socialist friend, Martha and her probably autistic son, Francis. There, she hears rumours of a prehistoric beast, the Essex Serpent, which somehow survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and is now causing all kinds of trouble in the estuary.
It’s here that she meets the local priest, William Ransome, and his family. The relationship they form is one of the most delicate, tentative and perfect ones that I have read about. They are friends, then they fight over science and religion, then they are friends again, but friends who are attracted to each other and the possibility of ruining everything they already have ruins the relationship for a while, until they’re friends again, but more mature friends. In any other novel, some events would be forced that would either see them end up together as a couple, or hating each other so much that they didn’t want to. This novel does better than that and I loved it for it.
Meanwhile, the mystery of the Essex serpent unfolds, with superstition in the village reaching fever pitch and Ransome trying to calm down his congregation. His wife falls ill, Cora’s friends in London quarrel and forge their own narratives surrounding medicine and socialised housing. Every character has their own story to tell. There is a world being built here, but the story of this world is told through the characters that inhabit it.
The result is deep and satisfying and holds many lessons about people, relationships and society. This book is much more than a pretty cover.