What a pleasure it was to read this book. From the first sentence to the last I was captivated. I didn't mind at all that the plot was slow in developing. The elegant language alone was enough to hold my interest.
Sarah Perry's book is set in the late 19th century and it takes the form of a gothic novel. This was an exciting period for scientific discoveries and intellectual debate and such debates are at the heart of this book as we watch two people, each from very different worlds, come together and form a unique relationship bond.
Cora Seaborne is from London. She has recently been released from a loveless and occasionally abusive marriage by the death of her husband. She admits at one point in the book that the day of her husband's death was probably the happiest day of her life. She still bears scars from that relationship, including a painful physical scar on her neck which she hides with scarves.
Cora was left quite well off financially by her husband's death and she decides that she will now live as she chooses to live, unconstrained by society's expectations.
She has a son named Francis, who would today be diagnosed as fitting on the autism spectrum. In the 1890s, he's just considered very odd and no one quite knows what to do with him.
Cora takes her son and his nanny, her friend Martha, to the Essex village of Aldwinter where she hopes to pursue her interests as a naturalist. She's never happier than when she is out slopping through the mud by the river looking for fossils, dreaming of finding evidence of some previously undiscovered species, like a plesiosaur.
While walking around the marshes one day, she comes upon a man struggling to free a sheep that is stuck in the mud. She plunges in to help and so encounters the local vicar, Will Ransome. They don't actually introduce themselves at this time and it's only at their second meeting that each actually learns who the other is.
Will is married to the beautiful - both inside and out - Stella and they have had five children, of whom three are still living. He dotes on Stella and his children and is passionate about his faith and about sharing that faith with his parishioners.
These representatives of science and faith meet and hit it off immediately as they engage in long intellectual discussions, sharing ideas. They become friends and it looks as if that friendship may blossom into an even deeper relationship.
Meanwhile, the beautiful Stella is not well. Her illness that the local physician has diagnosed as flu hangs on for months and finally is determined to be consumption. The outcome does not look hopeful for her.
At this time, the village of Aldwinter is engulfed by rumors of a great serpent, a dragon perhaps, that lives in the waters off shore and sometimes comes on shore to take animals or humans. No one has ever seen the animal, but many have caught glimpses or seen what they regard as evidence of the beast. Will Ransome considers his parishioners' agitation as nothing more than a form of mass hysteria, a relinquishing of their faith. He doesn't believe that such a creature exists.
Cora hopes that it does exist and that it is her much wanted undiscovered species. She hopes to discover it and donate her find to a museum.
The story switches back and forth between London and Aldwinter and there are several other prominent characters who contribute to the exposition of the plot. The tale is told with grace and intelligence and we come to care deeply about all these characters and to hope for the best outcome for each of them.
This was simply a delight to read from beginning to end, thoroughly satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. Sarah Perry is a very gifted writer.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars