The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2017)
Audio book narrated by Juanita McMahon (14:44 h)
(I read the book mostly on Kindle, but also listened to parts of it.)
The story starts in London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne's husband dies, she finds herself more relieved than sad. She had never found herself really happy in her married life. Neither did she ever feel quite at home in her role as mother to her 11 year old son, Francis, a rather peculiar boy (in modern times he would no doubt have had some sort of "diagnosis") - even if she does love him. However, in caring for him, she also has help from Martha, who serves both as nanny to Francis and friend/companion to Cora. Together, they break up from London and move to Essex.
Both mother and son find a new freedom living in the countryside by the coast - exploring their new surroundings separately rather than together, though. Martha is the one who misses the city life the most.
In the village where they settle, there are superstitious rumours being spread about the Essex Serpent, a mythical creature haunting the marshes. Sudden deaths, sicknesses or anything odd that happens are blamed on this mysterious creature having returned from the seas. Some claim to have seen it and heard it, and fear keeps growing in the community.
Cora, an admirer of the legendary 19th century fossil collector Mary Anning*, does not believe in neither superstition nor religion, but is hoping to find the beast to be some previously undiscovered species. Meanwhile, she is introduced to the parish vicar William Ransome and his wife Stella, who is suffering from a terminal disease. William, as a man of the church, is concerned about the rumours of the Serpent for different reasons. While he's anxious to put a stop to superstition and fear, he also feels threatened by Darwin's ideas of evolution. Nevertheless, Cora and William strike up an unlikely friendship, and in spite of their differences in matters of science vs faith, find themselves increasingly drawn to one another. However, William also still loves his wife; and Cora is not really looking for another relationship at all - which also shows in her attitude towards a male friend back in London, Luke - the doctor who cared for her husband. (Some parts of the story are told from Luke's perspective.) Martha, the nanny/companion, is also very fond of Cora. The only one who seems strangely free of jealousy is William's wife, Stella - who also seems to understand more than anyone else about her own illness. While her own children are sent away for a while during her convalescence, Stella also strikes up an unlikely friendship with Cora's son Francis; who is otherwise always very wary of strangers. But one thing the two of them have in common is an obsession to collect strange objects...
I found this a captivating but rather unusual sort of novel - hard to quite categorize. It's far from a straight forward love story; and at the same time, the Essex Serpent remains more of a background mystery than the real focus. Themes of love, friendship, grief, fear, obsession, superstition, faith and science keep intertwining throughout.
And the Serpent? Well, one or two explanations do turn up eventually... (But who knows?)
Other history fiction novels I was reminded of while reading this book were * Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot), and The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska. (Links go to old reviews of mine on this blog.) There's also quite a bit of "Dickens" spirit to it. Moreover, there's a lot of letter-writing going on back and forth between the characters in this book, also reminding of the style of several classic novels from the time period.