Enlightenment by Sarah Perry - review by John Burnside

John Burnside

Written in the Stars



Jonathan Cape 400pp £20

In 2014, with the publication of her elegant, haunting debut, After Me Comes the Flood, it became immediately apparent that Sarah Perry was an extraordinary new talent to reckon with in English fiction. The novel, a powerful and mysterious fable about trust and deception that got far less attention than it deserved, was followed two years later by the bestseller The Essex Serpent, named Fiction Book of the Year and Overall Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2017. Her third novel, Melmoth, appeared in 2018 to equal acclaim. For some writers, it might have been difficult to imagine where to go next, but Perry has surpassed even these early triumphs with Enlightenment. Somehow, she manages to combine the gripping narrative momentum of The Essex Serpent with the lyrical, almost metaphysical beauty of its predecessor. In doing so, Perry have perhaps signalled the start of a new phase in her work.

At the book’s core lies the unlikely friendship between Thomas Hart, a middle-aged feature writer for the Essex Chronicle, and Grace Macaulay, a seventeen-year-old who worships alongside him at the strict Baptist chapel in the fictional Essex town of Aldleigh. As the novel develops, it follows the two friends through unfulfilling love affairs, Hart’s obsession with a local ghost (possibly belonging to a 19th-­century astronomer, Maria Văduva) and a series of spiritual injuries and physical losses that test their shared faith to the limit. To divulge more of the plot would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Perry keeps the reader gripped with every twist and turn of events, all the while exploring the nature of friendship, the mysteries of love and faith (not to mention light and matter) and the question of what enlightenment truly means in a universe where, as the Quaker physicist Arthur Eddington once remarked, ‘something unknown is doing we don’t know what.’

Here is the real question concerning the nature of enlightenment: how do we know that what we are seeing – what we are experiencing – in the world around us is what it appears to be? When Hart moves from writing about local lore and ghost stories to an astronomy

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