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Book review: Enlightenment by Sarah Perry

28 June 2024

Malcolm Doney on love and longing in the Strict Baptist community

THE remarkable new novel by the author of The Essex Serpent (Book Club, 7 July 2017), Sarah Perry, is haunted by faith, doubt, love, loss, and the majestic movement of the planets. As ever with Perry’s work, it’s jam-packed with big ideas, exquisitely written, and characterised by a dark narrative drive.

The story is set in the Essex town of Aldleigh, loosely based on Chelmsford, familiar personal territory for Perry, as is the town’s uninviting Strict Baptist Bethesda Chapel: “a sealed container for God”.

Thomas Hart and Grace Macaulay are generations apart, but share a complex (mostly inexplicable) relationship with the Calvinistic divinity who inhabits the chapel and dominates their lives. Fifty-year-old Hart is an avuncular figure to the teenage Grace, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father is “the most pious and the most stern” of the congregation.

Thomas, a gay and troubled feature writer, was at the point of turning his back on the church when he first met the six-day-old Grace on her arrival in church and felt a burden of responsibility towards her: “He’d resolved that day to keep a foot in the chapel door, and let a little of her spirit out and a little of the world in.”

Fusty, tweedy, dusty Thomas lived a civil war between the spirit and the flesh, leaving his carnal nature in London on the station platform, and picking up his soul in Aldleigh “as if it were left luggage”. It was an attempt to balance “Christ and Eros . . . neatly on the points of his intellect”.

Grace — in a quest to placate either her equally austere father or God (she could not work out which) — wore a hat to church, and eschewed jeans, TV, and pop music, but was exhausted by the effort it took.

Into these metaphysical turmoils strolls teenage Nathan, exhibiting “the ease of a creature never told it was a sinner from the womb”, and James Bower, the awkward curator of the local museum. Each proceeds to steal the hearts and disturb the souls of the novel’s fragile main characters.

Added to these ingredients are the arrival of the dramatic Hale-Bopp comet, visible in the sky for 18 months, and the emergence of the mysterious history of a 19th-century Romanian astronomer, Maria Vaduva, whose sinister presence haunts the marshy wetlands of the River Alder.

These cosmic influences — which challenge concepts of time and space — and the disruptive invasion of love into lives shackled by rusty dogma are disquieting and discomforting, but force Grace and Thomas in their own way to look up and beyond, and, to submit, in Thomas’s words, “with wonder and gratitude to being loved”. It’s as good a novel as you’ll read this year.

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest, who lives in Suffolk.

Sarah Perry
Jonathan Cape £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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