Custom House, 432 pages, $26.99
There are initial intimations that this story could be a “Turn of the Screw” psychological thriller. In a particularly effective scene, young girls in a classroom begin to exhibit alarming hysterical behavior. But it isn’t.
For the most part, the setting is on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, a fog-filled Gothic atmosphere par excellence. Mud sucks, sprays, coats, and hides the secrets of the little town of Aldwinter. The book is set in 1892, still prime Gothic literary territory. Reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s lush descriptions of intertwined nature and human nature, Sarah Perry details the sights and sounds of Aldwinter, the countryside, the estuary, and its residents. Perry even sets foot in the poor person’s London.
I was disappointed, but not by Perry’s writing. It was excellently faux Gothic, stirring, and a tale well told. But there was no true tragedy, no true devastating secret, no ghosts. No crime.
The Essex serpent haunts the bayside but it is the people who haunt each other.