I find it tricky to review books I love as much as this one. Hard to know where to start, so I'll focus on a few elements that made this historical fiction sing to me.
The main character is Cora Seabourne, a wealthy widow who outlived a violently abusive husband and no longer Gives Any Fucks. A Victorian feminist in the tradition of Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett, she is an awesome creation. Striding about the wilds of Essex in her hobnail boots and man’s coat (it is the condition of this coat rather than her behavior that raises eyebrows), she is driven on by a passion for paleontology. Rumours of a vicious beastie lurking in the Blackwater are too much for her to resist.
The novel is packed with incident and drama – like a classic Victorian novel, it is full of doomed love affairs, sudden and brutal changes of fortune, and a touch of the supernatural crashing hard into religious doctrine - but it is the characters that keep pages turning.
As well as Cora, there is a wide cast of friends and relations each of whom has a rich inner life. Sarah Perry avoids the usual depiction of Victorians as judgmental prudes, favouring a range of complex opinions and beliefs on politics and morality; much as we are now. With mentions of soldiers returning home from the war in Afghanistan and a London housing crisis, there is something pleasingly modern and relatable about this historical slice of Essex life.
Combined with the atmospheric descriptions of the landscape – a place of saltings and bladderwrack – it sparks Cora's world to vivid life.
“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”