Sarah Perry’s second novel is seriously something else. It’s totally not something I would usually read, and I’ll admit that I was drawn in by the Waterstones special edition cover (it’s shiny and the pages are blue – what more could you want?!). I hadn’t read her first novel, but I have to say my expectations were high after the level of hype surrounding this book last year. This included being awarded the 2016 Waterstones Book of the Year award, winning both the fiction and overall book of the year categories at the 2017 British Book Awards, and a further eight nominations, including the longlist of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the shortlist of the 2016 Costa Book Awards. Phew! Nevertheless, I was apprehensive – like I said, not my usual read (non-fiction, high fantasy, Austen etc), but I was definitely willing to give it a go.
Cora Seaborne is truly the main focus of this novel. Despite bringing in many strong and fully-fledged characters, we are always taken back to Cora. Personally, I found her quite compelling and likeable – what she is doing is not always ‘right’, but she’s honest with the reader (as much as she is with herself) and certainly isn’t your typical 19th century widow. However, I can imagine that a lot of people would not be quite so fond of her. She has a newfound sense of freedom after the death of her abusive husband, and decides to move herself, her son, and her housekeeper/companion Martha to Essex. It is a strange, seemingly boring existence, but they seem to move along with their lives.
It’s after this that Perry’s wonderful cast of characters really come into their own. Luke Garrett, ‘The Imp’, a fantastic doctor who becomes somewhat involved with Cora, is a caricature of the eccentric scientist, wanting to experiment with all types of dangerous surgery. His friend George, besotted with Martha, is a calming influence, both he and Luke unaware of what they mean to one another. The unlikely vicar, Will Ransome, and his beautiful, ethereal wife Stella, who welcome Cora with open arms into their village of Aldwinter. Their eldest daughter Joanna, trapped between childish whims and a more mature outlook of her education and future. The list goes on – Perry has a penchant for creating hugely memorable, complex characters, despite their inherent ordinariness.
Alongside the intense relationships between various characters, the book follows the rumour and hysteria surrounding the Essex serpent, a supposedly ancient sea dragon which is ravaging parts of the Essex coastline, despite not ever being properly seen, much less documented. Keen amateur palaeontologist Cora is more interested than most, and she and Will struggle to stomach the myth and mystery affecting the people of Aldwinter, with their misplaced beliefs in the legend of the creature.
I found that there was a strange sense of very little happening throughout the book. Even by the ending, things have gradually altered, and the mystery is somewhat resolved, but there are many threads left loose. It seems to be part of the beauty of the book – despite the fascinating characters and peculiar subjects addressed, this is a tale of reality. None of the characters are truly lovable, nor are they abhorrent; there is a story to be told, but it meanders along throughout the year, events seemingly unrolling as they please; and just as we all can understand, there’s no complete and objective happy ending – life goes on.
PS My favourite line: