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Enlightenment by Sarah Perry review – cosmic strangeness

Enlightenment by Sarah Perry review – cosmic strangeness

How do you quiet a warring soul? Every one of Sarah Perry’s novels has grappled lavishly with this question. Fate v free will; doubt v certainty; science v God. The metaphysical battleground is Perry’s literary terrain. She cannot seem to escape its gravitational pull, nor the estuarine mud of her home county. And so it seems only fitting that the Essex author’s new novel, Enlightenment, is a tale of orbits, collisions and other cosmic ellipses: inescapable loops.

We begin in the winter of 1997 in the fictional riverside town of Aldleigh, a version of Chelmsford, where Perry grew up. This was a decisive year for Britain: the year of Tony Blair and the New Labour landslide, the handover of Hong Kong, and Princess Diana’s funeral pageantry. But the only event that interests Perry is celestial: the blazing arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet. Enlightenment has its neck cricked upwards, its eyes full of moonlight.

Our heroes are a gentleman stargazer, a master embroiderer and a wakeful ghost in a black satin gown. In both good and bad ways, Perry’s novel reads like a collision between Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, AS Byatt’s Possession and the quantum physics of Carlo Rovelli (whom Perry extols in her acknowledgments). Enlightenment is gauzy and unhurried, a genteel novel of inner space. It’s luxuriously – defiantly – old-fashioned.

We follow the fate of Thomas Hart, a fiftysomething chap so interminably fusty he seems to “shed dust as he walks”. Thomas is a confirmed bachelor of the euphemistic sort, and an amateur astronomer (“a citizen of the empire of the moon”). He writes a weekly column for the local paper musing on faith, physics and the firmament, and spends his Sundays perched on the hard, narrow pews of Bethesda Baptist Church, a stern Calvinist sect, where he is told that his inner nature is “an affront to God”.

Thomas would leave Bethesda were it not for Grace Macauley, the pastor’s wild-hearted, motherless daughter (our needlesmith in waiting). Grace is about to turn 18, and Thomas is determined to keep one foot in the chapel door to “let a little of her spirit out, and a little of the world in”. They are divided souls, torn between piety and desire. “All these years there have been two fires in me,” Thomas laments, “and neither puts the other out!” Thomas and Grace see each other clearly, which gives them the power to protect one another, but also to inflict the deepest of wounds. Is it possible to love someone you can never forgive?

It is hard not to talk about Perry’s upbringing here – like Grace and Thomas, she was raised by Calvinist Baptists – but I’m always wary about imposing causation. However Perry found her way to these pages, what matters to a reader is her imaginative brio, her unerring capacity to make the earthly new and strange. All the Perry hallmarks and talismans are here: jackdaws and night creatures, salt marsh and river silt, churchyards of cold stone and leatherbound books. Fans of Perry’s breakout novel, The Essex Serpent, will be delighted. There are echoes, too, of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its ardent fossil hunters and high Victorian mimicry, though Perry’s novel is far more decorous: a study in unrequitedness (star hunters look to the heavens, not down into the lusty muck).

Perry has always produced gorgeous prose, and she has found a new, ethereal register in this book. Largely gone is the fire-and-brimstone gothic of 2018’s Melmoth. In its place is something equally ferocious, but riven with starlight. Behold her description of Hale-Bopp: “the Great Comet of the age, radiant above the Lowlands pediment, and falling through Perseus like the last of the rebel angels”. It’s possible to forgive all manner of narrative sins for that kind of astonishment.

As the comet streaks towards perihelion, the apex of its loop around the sun, Thomas and Grace find themselves caught up in a century-old mystery: the 1887 disappearance of Maria Văduva, a Romanian comet hunter turned ornery ghost. They will spend the next three decades stumbling across clues – furtive letters, misplaced gravestones, a cryptic diary, a pearl-threaded dress – while Maria’s “black-browed” spirit berates them from the shadows. It’s not the greatest of mystery plots – far too reliant on serendipity – but this is a book about the capriciousness of the stars.

That is both its charm and its greatest weakness. Had Hale-Bopp appeared in a different decade, or century, I suspect Perry would have written exactly the same book. It’s the comet that matters to her, not post-Thatcher politics. It is hard to shake the feeling that Perry has taken a narrative she loves, and a spectacle she wants, and thwacked them together out of astronomical necessity. I was charmed by the book’s cosmic strangeness, but bothered by its queer cliches. It’s so wearying to confront yet another tale of exquisite, chaste gay loneliness.

When a telescope is used for the first time – tilted up into the dark – what the astronomer sees that night is called “First Light”. It’s as if a new consciousness is born in that moment, a new eye opened. At her best, that’s what Perry has managed to capture in Enlightenment. The joy of first light.

Source: theguardian.com