Book review: Enlightenment, by Sarah Perry

Many fans of Sarah Perry’s bestseller The Essex Serpent wanted a different ending, but there should be fewer complaints about the conclusion of her immaculate new novel, writes Stuart Kelly

Towards the end of Sarah Perry’s new novel, there is a moment of outrageous chutzpah. “On the second evening in August”, she writes, “Thomas abandoned his manuscript with a cry of disgust – at his imagination, vocabulary, wisdom, phrases, capacity for characterisation, and in fact the whole absurd enterprise of literature.” For this not to be a flagrant hostage to fortune, the writer has to be not just confident and competent but somehow both sportive and at ease with their own abilities. It also stakes a claim which is almost old fashioned: that literature is in fact not an absurd enterprise, and that even a novel as delightful as this can have a serious purpose.Thomas is Thomas Hart, a resident of Aldleigh and an amiable columnist on the Essex Chronicle, mostly writing until recently about local history and folklore; although when younger he had written a few opaque novels. Given this is a novel much concerned with ellipses, the other focal point, the F2 to his F1, is Grace Macaulay, a teenage girl who “disliked books, and was by nature a thief if she found a thing to be beautiful but not hers”. Both are congregants at the Bethesda Chapel, of the Strict Baptist denomination. Thomas is a godfather manqué to Grace, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father, Ronald, “the most pious and the most stern” member, brought her to the chapel at six days old. There is something self-consciously Victorian about a semi-foundling and a confirmed bachelor.Another arc and a parabola fix the other moving parts. A ball thrown by a young man, Nathan, crashes through the chapel window. A local librarian finds papers relating to Maria Vǎduva, an erstwhile resident in the now-derelict Lowlands house, where Nathan thought he saw a ghost as a child. Thomas is given a planisphere and encouraged to write on different topics, especially as the comet Halle-Bopp is due soon to be seen, a partial eclipse later and a return of another comet, 330P/1889 (du Lac), at the end. A new “gentleman of the road” or “milestone inspector” in a distinctive red coat is spotted around Aldleigh. If the reader might carp or quibble that the parallels and echoes, the foreshadowings and leitmotifs, the coincidences which are not coincidences and the deliberate accidents all seem a little mechanistic, then the reader can be assured that the clockwork precision is both the point and joy of the story.That the names have meanings – a heartful Hart who is a doubting Thomas, a Grace who can be graceless and ungracious, Nathan means “gift of God” and Vǎduva, “widow” – reinforces the feeling of a kind of narrative astrolabe. Perry rather mischievously nods at gothic trappings. Maria, in the 19th century, thinks with no moon and no clouds she might see Lucifer in the morning, and Perry transplants the “Hardy Tree” salvaged gravestones from Old Saint Pancras to her fictional Aldwinter. But the questions of faith are not about anything eldritch here. Rather, they are more fundamental. Do we have agency? Are our fates predestined? It hovers around a wonderful German phrase, Einmal ist Keinmal, “once is never”. Does something being finite mean it had no meaning at all, or is being merely a one-off something pardonable?Perry has some superb set-pieces throughout the novel, almost in sync with the periodicity of the celestial bodies. They are reminiscent of the end of the first book of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where the omniscient narrator casts an eye over everything: “men and women generally indifferent to the stars were compelled beyond the limit of their interest, and wondered what it was, and why it didn’t move. In the Colchester barracks, bragging squaddies drunk on valour saw it, and argued over the cause; a girl coming out of the Jackdaw and Crow in tears over a broken shoe saw it, and tried to describe it, and couldn’t. (The vagrant in the red coat saw it from the steps of the war memorial, but all day he’d been diligently drinking, so all the stars had tails.) Ronald Macaulay saw it, and said to himself that the heavens declared the glory of God, but admitted that of that glory he felt nothing”. That kind of panorama is superb when done well, and it is a mark of genuine talent to craft cadenzas that seem so effortless.In a similar manner, Perry writes about unrequited love. It is sentimental, but to manage it is a real accomplishment. Unrequited love is not particularly fashionable, and yet there is a timeless quality to works like Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac or in the Coppélia ballet based on ETA Hoffman’s Der Sandmann (which has a Nathanael in the original, changed to Franz for the stage). The idea of unrequited love unites the different swirls of narrative, and there is both a nobility and a humility in it, conspicuously absent from the want-it-get-it contemporary attitude.Many of those who liked The Essex Serpent wanted a different ending. I don’t think similar accusations could be levelled here. Perry does however include a little Easter Egg to the other novel: it is not intrinsic to the plot, and not getting it will not matter, but it’s a clever little luxury in an otherwise immaculate book.

Enlightenment, by Sarah Perry, Jonathan Cape, £20