There’s a passage in Sarah Perry’s new novel where protagonist Thomas Hart, a local newspaper columnist whose beat is the offbeat, tells a friend: “I wake each morning a failure, living in this gap between what I want to achieve and my capacity to achieve it. That’s writing for you.”

There are sounds of amused recognition when I read it over the phone to the author herself, me in Edinburgh, her at home in East Anglia. Previously, she admits, she has always shied away from having a central character who is a writer “because there’s something potentially quite narrow and rarefied about the writer’s experience, and I’ve never wanted to foreground that. But with Thomas, I gave him some of the anguish that I feel all of the time.”

Most writers would admit to the same feeling of anguish. One from the heart then? “You conceive an idea for a book and in the moment of its conception it’s exquisite,” she says by way of answer. “Every sentence is exquisite and the plot is perfect and the form is absolutely crystalline and it’s daring and beautiful and expansive. Then you sit down to write it and you realise it’s rubbish. Then you have years and years of eking out this draft that bears no resemblance to your vision. And it is so humbling and such hard work, and I’m increasingly amazed I put myself through it over and over again.”

And yet Perry does. Again and again. As for beautiful, daring and expansive, they are superlatives which all still hang easily from the completed novels. Along with one work of non-fiction, there have been three to date: 2014 debut After Me Comes The Flood, 2018’s Melmoth, and award-winning 2016 bestseller The Essex Serpent, adapted for television in 2022 with Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in the lead roles.


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The descriptors apply just as well to new novel, Enlightenment, which is already being called her finest yet. Set across three time periods and using the battery of literary devices familiar to readers of Perry’s fiction – letters, journals, historical tracts and now also newspaper articles – it combines the author’s long-held love of astronomy with a strongly autobiographical plot delving into her very unconventional upbringing in Essex, the county which dominates her fiction but which, viewed through her very particular and peculiar authorial lens, is always turned strange and weird.

The youngest of five sisters, Perry was raised in Chelmsford within a family of devout Christians, adherents of a denomination of Evangelical Protestantism known as the Strict Baptists. “I don’t think anybody looks back on their childhood and thinks that was normal,” she tells me. “I think we all think our childhood was formative in lots of weird ways. But mine was quite strange.”

In Enlightenment, the fictional town of Aldleigh doubles for Chelmsford, and as well as being a columnist on the Essex Chronicle, kindly Thomas Hart is a member of the local Baptist chapel, Bethesda. In his other life, he is a shy but persistent presence on the London gay scene.

He is old enough to have seen it decimated by AIDs and while he has arrived at an accommodation between his faith and his nature, he still keeps the second a secret from his brethren. When he falls for the married director of the local museum, it complicates a working relationship in which the two men have set out to discover more about enigmatic and mysterious Maria Văduva, a Romanian astronomer who lived locally but disappeared in the late 1880s.

There’s a lot of Perry in Thomas. But not as much as there is in the character of his friend and sort-of God-daughter, Grace Macauley. Fierce, awkward, ungainly and strange-looking, she is 17 as the novel opens in 1997, the same age Perry was in that year. She also has her creator’s middle name.

“I felt that there was a kind of integrity to that,” says Perry. “I knew that whatever I did, if I had a young woman growing up as a Strict Baptist in the 1990s it would always be drawing on myself. So I decided that rather than shying away from it too much, I would do a little nod to the fact that it’s very autobiographical.”

The Herald: Clare Danes in The Essex SerpentClare Danes in The Essex Serpent (Image: free)

She also needed “courage”, she says, to be able to write about growing up so insulated and separated from the things which would otherwise have been in her cultural DNA as a girl coming of age in the 1990s. Make-up, fashion, music.

Indeed there’s a telling story about a book festival event where, without a clue as to his identity, Perry engaged a bemused fellow author in a discussion of why he should read Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. This was Brett Anderson, former frontman with Britpop legends Suede. Provided afterwards with the name, Perry was still none the wiser, and even at the age of 44 she says she feels like “a creature out of time who’s never really absolutely at home in the world because I was brought up so far from it.”

Instead the cultural life she did enjoy as a teenager started and ended with the classics of 19th century literature and with the King James Bible, parts of which she was made to learn and recite. Still, for an aspiring author it’s not a bad pond to swim in, and the deep dives she made have had a profound affect on her extraordinary writing style. In her own winning phrase: “It’s just how my eyes were put in.”

In Enlightenment, those uncommon eyes turns once more on her home turf of Essex – but also to the sky, where Thomas learns what Maria knew about orbits and celestial bodies; to the world of humans, where love, loss, faith, friendship and yearning are things to be enjoyed, tolerated, banked or endured; and to the question of, as Perry puts it, “where you locate your sense of wonder and sense of eternity if you no longer have the faith you were brought up with.”

Big questions rendered, as ever, in startling prose.

Enlightenment by Sarah Perry is available now (Jonathan Cape, £20).