FICTION
Enlightenment
Sarah Perry, Penguin, $34.99

Sarah Perry’s latest novel, Enlightenment, begins in 1997, on a rainy late winter’s evening in the fictional Essex town of Aldleigh. Thomas Hart, a middle-aged columnist for a provincial English newspaper, is urged by his editor to write a piece about the Hale-Bopp comet, which is due to arrive.

“Five hundred words, please, and six if the night is clear,” he urges a reluctant Hart, placing a planisphere in his hands. This device, an old, adjustable star globe, belonged to the editor’s father, recently deceased. So Hart, rather grumpily, heads for the sprawling grounds of the local stately house, Lowlands, a dilapidated 18th-century mansion with a reputation for being haunted. The ghost in question is a strange foreign woman, Maria Veduva, who disappeared at the end of the 19th century and, it later becomes clear, was obsessed with comets.

Hart, in turn, becomes obsessed with Veduva, whose letters and jottings have begun to surface and whose shade seems to haunt him. There is a sense that people can inhabit more than one reality at the same time, and the imminent arrival of the comet is creating an unsettling ellipse to the behaviour of some of the town’s residents.

Readers familiar with Perry’s three previous novels – After Me Comes the Flood, The Essex Serpent (her bestseller) and Melmoth – will recognise continuities of theme and style in Enlightenment. The vivid and driving storytelling, the Gothic settings and sensibilities that pervade her writing and her exploration of superstition and the uncanny are all given full throttle.

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So too, even more explicitly and autobiographically than in previous writing, is an exploration of religious faith.
Thomas Hart is a man who lives a double life. His homosexuality is at odds with his upbringing as a member of a Christian sect, the Strict and Particular Baptists, but he navigates both worlds by keeping them geographically separate. The train to London is a time capsule that hurtles him away from strict 19th-century views of morality into a modern one of sexual expression and sensual gratification. But the chapel keeps pulling him back, not least because of his affection and sense of responsibility for motherless Grace Macaulay, an impetuous, awkward 17-year-old who, like Hart, has been born into the sect.

Although a generation apart in age, their appetites and desire for adventure set them apart from the Baptists’ biblical values and, as the novel unfolds over 20 years, on paths of conflict, anguish and betrayal. Perry has said in interviews that her writing output is about the tussle between conscience and the supernatural, and how to live as an ethical person in this world.

Although she has since left the church, her own upbringing was centred on the Ebenezer Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel in Chelmsford, Essex, a town very like Aldleigh. She has quipped that hers was a 19th-century childhood, devoid of television or pop music. It was also, she has written, full of love and learning. Her father’s faith did not preclude him also being a keen astronomer, an interest Perry also took up.

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