By Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry’s inventive, atmospheric novel Enlightenment has a 19th-century feel despite its contemporary setting, with a hint of the literary romance and mystery of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
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Sarah Perry’s new novel, Enlightenment, opens on a late-winter Monday in 1997 in the office of the Essex Chronicle, a small newspaper in the English town of Aldleigh. Fifty-year-old Thomas Hart, who’s been quietly writing about literature and ghosts for 20 years, needs to write something new, his boss tells him, suggesting astronomy—the Hale-Bopp comet will soon be visible. That same day, Thomas receives a letter from the town museum with new information about the Lowlands ghost, who’s rumored to haunt the nearby Lowlands House, and who may be a 19th-century astronomer from Romania named Maria Vaduva. These two events will send Thomas on a quest to fill in the details of Maria Vaduva’s life and work.

Intertwined with Thomas’ story is that of 17-year-old Grace Macaulay, who’s linked to Thomas through their Baptist church; Thomas has also helped raise Grace after her mother died in childbirth. Grace stumbles into her first love, which sets off a series of complications that will rupture Thomas and Grace’s friendship. The story follows the two over the next 20 years, landing on pivotal moments for both.

But this plot description does little to give a real sense of Enlightenment. Despite its contemporary setting, the novel has a 19th-century feel, with an omniscient voice and a narrative peppered with letters, newspaper columns and (fictional) historical documents. And while it’s partly a ghost story, with an occasionally Gothic feel, Enlightenment is also a novel about the love of astronomy. There’s a feminist story, too—that of Maria Vaduva, the neglected 19th-century astronomer—woven around Thomas’ and Grace’s stories. But mostly, this is a novel about friendship and belonging, the grief after a friendship is lost and the difficult path to forgiveness.

Many of Perry’s sentences are startlingly beautiful, creating an atmospheric sense of setting and character. If some of Enlightenment’s goings-on are a bit elliptical, and if some secondary characters feel a little wispy, not quite coming into focus, that too seems part of the novel’s aim and its charm. There’s a hint of the literary romance and mystery of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, though Enlightenment is more playful. Wide in its scope despite its narrow small-town setting, this gentle but insistent and inventive novel will tug on you in surprising ways.

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By Sarah Perry
ISBN 9780063352612

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