Every January, the Observer newspaper profiles several debut novelists, who they predict will do well with their books. Last January Jessica Cornwall was one of the writers selected for her novel The Serpent Papers. Attention has rightly or wrongly focused on her successful relatives; her grandfather is John Le Carre, her uncle is Nick Harkaway, and her father Stephen Cornwall is a successful screenwriter, so she has alot to live up to. On the basis of this novel, I believe she lives up to her relatives work, with hopefully a long career ahead of her.
The Serpent Papers is the first in a trilogy. The central character is a young American academic researcher Anna Verco, who has been employed by a private organisation to locate for them a manuscript believed to have been created by Rex Illuminatus, a medieval alchemist. The Serpent Papers manuscript created by the alchemist Rex Illuminatus, is considered heretical and dangerous, and have been hidden and discovered over several centuries by people sympathetic to Illimintus’s views. Anna’s contemporary search is closely bound up with three earlier times: 2003, 1851 and the medieval period when the manuscript was created. Each plot strand is presented discretely from each other, and it takes the reader a while to piece the strands together.
Anna’s quest considerably overlaps with Manel Fabregat, retired police officer. Fabregat was the senior police officer, overseeing the investigation into the murders of three women. The murders weren’t solved at the time and have remained unsolved in 2013. Fabregat had a breakdown as a result and took early retirement; however he remains keen to solve them. Two of the victims remain shadowy; the other victim Natalia Hernandez was a well-known actress. As the novel progresses, it emerges that Natalia’s life and death are central to the plot. Alongside her as central characters are the actor Oriol Duran and the director of her last play, Angel Villafranca.
I found all of the characters to be well developed and interesting, especially the central character of Anna Verco. Anna has the ability to hear voices from the past, who aid her in her quest to locate the manuscript. In earlier centuries, Anna would have been viewed as a mystic, and is now on medication to help her deal with this. I also found well developed the character of Natalia, who comes from a family of mystics.
The novel is set in Barcelona and Valldemosa in Mallorca during autumn and winter when the tourists have mostly gone, and the places left to the locals.
I greatly enjoyed the book, finding it well-written, with an ambitious and thought provoking plot, varied locations and a memorable set of characters. I hope the next instalment of the trilogy is as good as the first, and look forward to meeting Anna Verco again.