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Enlightenment by Sarah Perry – a tale of cosmic beauty on the Essex marshes
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Enlightenment by Sarah Perry – a tale of cosmic beauty on the Essex marshes

Sarah Perry’s third book, Melmoth, remains, to my mind, one of the most complex and brilliant novels of the past few decades: a serious and haunting attempt to wrestle with the darkest elements of the 20th century. Perry remains best known for The Essex Serpent, her bestselling story of science, faith and monsters in late-19th-century England. Her extraordinary and ambitious fourth novel, Enlightenment, might best be thought of as a combination of the previous two books, being almost a sequel to The Essex Serpent and containing within it regular, uncanny echoes of Melmoth.

The book opens in 1997 with the Hale-Bopp comet high in the sky over the (fictional) Essex town of Aldleigh, just up the river from the Blackwater marshes and the half-drowned (and also fictional) village of Aldwinter, setting for The Essex Serpent. Our hero is the unlikely figure of Thomas Hart, “a man of Essex, for his sins”, who is 50, bookish, gay, and a columnist for the Essex Chronicle. He “had about him the melancholy religious air of a defrocked priest” and it’s no wonder: he lives a double life, travelling down to London to pick up men before returning to sit in the pews at the Bethesda chapel, a congregation of Strict and Particular Baptists.

Perry herself was raised a Strict Baptist, and one of the animating energies of this novel is the way she engages with that dissenting legacy: the fondness she has for the community and moral clarity of the church, while recognising, as one character phrases it, that living with their God was “as if they had a lodger upstairs who’d bang on the floor with a broom if they ever made a noise”. The novel traces the friendship between Thomas and a teenage girl in the congregation, Grace Macauley, who feels like a version of Perry herself as a bright, awkward, questioning young woman wrestling with the conflicting demands of her faith and the temptations of adolescent life.

Hart, reluctantly at first, is persuaded to start writing a column on astronomy in the Chronicle. We read these columns, recognising the way that Hart finds in the stars and the physics that controls their path through the sky a kind of religious joy. “I had become a citizen of the empire of the moon,” he writes in his first column. Later, we read that “when he understood Kepler’s laws, he was brought almost to tears by such exacting beauty”. Reading quantum mechanics, he discovers that “it has all the strangeness of theology”. Towards the end of the book, Thomas finds that the “sky at night offered him a liturgy, and he attended devoutly to the inscrutable beauty of its syllables and propositions: redshift, blueshift, and the proper motion of the stars.”

The Bethesda chapel sits near a ruined country house, Lowlands. There are rumours of a ghost – a woman who lurked in the background of old photographs. Thomas has written about her in his columns and is approached by the curator of the local museum, James Bower, who thinks he has identified the woman. He believes she is Maria Vǎduva Bell, a Romanian who married the wealthy owner of Lowlands. Through a collection of diaries and letters, we build up a picture of the enigmatic Maria, an astronomer herself, still in love with a poet in Bucharest.

Love is also there in the late-90s narrative: Thomas falls for (the resolutely heterosexual) James, while Grace meets a rakish fellow student called Nathan. Meanwhile, another Romanian appears: a wandering priest with a dark past who may help to unravel the mystery of Maria. There are two grand set pieces here, both potential tragedies: one sees Lowlands burned to the ground, the other is more fleeting and intimate, although its repercussions are felt across the novel’s broad sweep. We revisit Thomas, Grace and Nathan in 2008, then again in 2017, the sense each time of stepping into a world that is both utterly changed and held together by the same essential forces.

There’s one extraordinary moment in the 1997 section of the book when Thomas, Grace and Nathan go together to visit Aldwinter. It feels like an act of pilgrimage, walking in the footsteps of Cora and Will from The Essex Serpent. This points to one of the deeper themes of the novel: motion and time. Perry mentions Carlo Rovelli’s work in her acknowledgments, but rather than just using the work of the theoretical physicist to lend heft to Thomas’s journalistic musings on science, it feels like Rovelli’s The Order of Time provides a kind of organisational framework for the themes of the novel, suggesting also how we might read it alongside The Essex Serpent.

“Things pass, and they return,” Thomas says at one point; later, he tells us that “I have the strangest feeling that things happen not one after the other, but all at once”. Novels are time machines: their work is the measuring of events through time. What Perry has done in this layered, intelligent and moving book is to construct a kind of quantum novel, one that asks us to question conventional linear narratives and recognise instead what is ever-present in Perry’s luminous vision of Essex: truth, beauty and love.

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Source: theguardian.com