By Sarah Perry.
Cora Seaborne is a wealthy, happily widowed amateur palaeontologist who ends up in the Essex village of Aldwinter, which is gripped by tales of the Essex serpent. She is introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his wife, Stella, the local consumptive cliché. Seaborne and Ransome are attracted to each other and eventually have sex before parting. That appears to be the main plot.
Alongside the main plot, Luke Garrett, who fancies Seaborne, is a brilliant surgeon whose hand gets injured in a fight. His rich mate, Spencer, is a champagne socialist who gets involved in London’s housing crisis. The books ends with them as a covertly gay couple even if neither of them is. Seaborne’s companion, Martha, is the object of Spencer’s interest, who stirs his social compassion, but shacks up with Edward Burton, whose life was saved by Garrett’s surgery. Stella Ransome is a satire on the Cult of Thinness, who becomes more beautiful the thinner she gets. Seaborne’s peculiar son, Francis, may be autistic, but this is never established.
The plot rambles dully along without ever seeming to have a clear direction, and the subplot about housing in London has no real connection to events in Essex. Climaxes? Seaborne and Ransome’s copulating? The revelation that the Essex serpent might have been no more than an oarfish or an upturned, missing boat? Who knows? There’s no sense of the story really driving towards a significant conclusion.
Most of the time, The Essex Serpent sounds like a novel written by a Guardian reader about a bunch of Guardian readers transposed to the 19th century, and is packed full of obvious worthiness.
Nonetheless, there is some clever writing here. When Seaborne and Ransome first meet, it appears that his interests lie more in the ovine than the feminine; but this is like one of those films where the trailer is all of the interesting bits, and the rest is entirely missable.