Novelist Sarah Perry lost her faith — and found her voice (2024)

WAITSFIELD, Vt. — Sarah Perry put a total solar eclipse in her new novel, “Enlightenment,” but — absurdly, in her opinion — had never seen one herself. So, this spring, she crossed the Atlantic from her home in East Anglia to put herself in the path of totality. Sitting in the driveway of the inn where we met up, as the owner handed out cups of sparkling wine and boxes of Kleenex, Perry was getting nervous. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked.

Perry writes fiction that is at once hugely popular and totally unfashionable. Her prose has a sumptuous, almost embroidered feel; her narrators sound not just omniscient but kindly. The characters question what it means to live a moral life, though not in today’s argot of trauma, complicity, structures, systems; instead they speak of virtue, the soul, the ends of human inquiry. The most beloved of her books, “The Essex Serpent,” from 2017, was a neo-Gothic romance about a naturalist, a surgeon and a pastor in 1890s England. What could have wound up as cheap pastiche or an airless diorama felt, in her hands, sensuous and vital.

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On the page, Perry reads as if Carl Sagan were reincarnated as a long-lost Brontë. In person, she has the look of a wayward time traveler — like she fell out of a John Singer Sargent painting and decided that the 21st century suited her fine. The afternoon of the eclipse, she wore a shawl around her shoulders, a black pinafore down to her ankles, oxblood Tabis and a pair of “Top Gun” aviators. Looking skyward, her expression tense, she pulled out the pack of Silk Cuts she’d purchased a month earlier.

“A book coming out is genuinely horrifying,” she said, lighting a cigarette between her teeth. “Because I write for readers — I don’t write as self-expression, or as therapy — I write for love. Which can be unrequited.”

There was also, she added, the stress of watching the cloud bank as the crucial moment approached. The weather was testing our devotion. Periodically, Perry would explain some phenomenon of physics: “Oh, look, there’s a sun dog,” she said brightly. “There are ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere that are refracting at exactly 22 degrees from the sun.” It sounded like she was reciting a prayer.

“Enlightenment” is Perry’s most overtly personal novel to date. It follows a friendship whose arc feels like a matter of celestial math: Thomas Hart, a small-town newspaper columnist and amateur astronomer, and Grace Macauley, a willful teenager, first meet at their church when Grace is just a baby. That encounter is narrated simply: “She had not existed, and then she had, summoned out of whatever matter her consciousness had been made, and had stuck her small bare foot in his door. It was disastrous.” Their bond, stretching across an age gap of decades, feels unlikely, even miraculous, somehow fixed and unwilled. Both are tugged between their faith and earthly desires: Thomas’s for men; Grace’s for a boy named Nathan. Deeper still, they share an urge to explore the world beyond their Calvinist community. “I think perhaps you are a man with his back to the sun,” one character tells Thomas.

Thomas corrects him: “My trouble is that I have two suns, and neither outshines the other.”

How would it feel to slip the orbit of that first sun? Is it even possible?

Though Perry no longer calls herself religious, “My psyche kind of is a Baptist chapel,” she said. When she was growing up, she, her parents and her four older sisters were in the pews every Sunday, and at least twice during the week. The building — its pulpit and baptistery, the weave of the carpet — became as familiar as home. In “Enlightenment,” Bethesda, in the fictional English town of Aldleigh, is closely modeled on the chapel they attended in the county of Essex, down to the slow river and the exact placement of the traffic lights outside. Grace, Perry takes care to note, has a decidedly different family life and childhood from the author’s, but she lives among the same trappings: social teas, modest clothes, rigid rules.

Perry’s upbringing was unusual, austere in some respects and rich in others. Forty-four years old, she likes to joke that she was born in 1815. In Essex — where, digging in the back garden, one could find bits of Roman pottery — the past always felt close. Her family’s Strict Baptist faith cut off virtually all contemporary culture: no television, no cinema. They listened only to classical music. (At times, Perry still feels out of her depth when it comes to pop, but: “I know all the words to [Beyoncé’s] ‘Texas Hold ’Em’ — I’m not a savage.”) Her father, a materials scientist, took her comet-hunting and instilled in her a love of physics. She also had “extraordinary access to the best of literature,” she said, so long as it predated 1910: “There is particularly a religious tendency to think that what is new is ungodly, is worldly, is violent — that modern fiction contains naughtiness. And it’s such a misunderstanding. Have you read ‘The duch*ess of Malfi’?”

Perry didn’t take offense to being teased by other girls at school. What would be the point? She had no interest in being ordinary and no ability to fake it. While at university, she attended a Presbyterian church and married young, “so I wasn’t even normal there.” She held the world, still, at arm’s length. Her peculiarity struck her most painfully, perhaps, in her graduate writing program, where she enrolled after spending much of her 20s unhappily employed in various positions: nanny, shop worker, civil servant. She overheard a classmate remark, “If she could just write contemporary fiction, she’d be really good.” Perry was hurt. She thought, But I am writing contemporary fiction.

Whatever insecurity she felt didn’t show: Her thesis adviser, Andrew Motion, remembered Perry as practically minded and decisive when it came to her work. Her graduate project became the basis of “After Me Comes the Flood,” a dark, languorous take on the classic British country-house mystery. The manuscript’s sheer strangeness caught the eye of Hannah Westland, who went on to edit all of Perry’s books: “It didn’t feel like the work of a young writer.”

But for a time, the comment shook Perry’s confidence. She knew what her peers counted as good prose, and that she would never achieve it. When she tried to write hard-boiled realism, it came out Gothic. Essentially, she had been raised on the reading diet of a Victorian child. Her perception of the world, her whole consciousness, came from inside notions of sin and the eternal. She could more easily pick out a strand of DNA with her fingernails than shake off the cadences of the King James Bible.

Perry and her husband left the church in 2007, as political debates over same-sex marriage legislation started permeating the sermons they heard from the pulpit. Once, it had been possible to suppress her doubts. “But there has to come a moment where courage, and your convictions, and your intellect, are more important than that comfort,” she said. “And the fact that we had gay friends and wanted their well-being, and wanted the preservation of their status as equal human beings with us, required more of me.” It was, as one character says in “Flood,” “like the little tap on the glass that makes the window break.”

There was also the matter of art, she said. Throughout her youth — still, sometimes, today — she had felt scrutinized in every aspect of her life: how she spoke, how she dressed, where she went. At 27, living and working in London, she had snuck deep into Hampstead Heath to have a cigarette, as if to avoid being caught by church elders. And writing had been particularly tangled up in a sense of transgression. Perry remembers, as a young child, scrawling “GOD” on a pad of paper and staring at the word, forward and backward, for a long time.

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“There was something absolutely extraordinary in the fact that I had made a symbol that, read that way, meant ‘God’ — and I heard his name all day, every day — but read that way, meant ‘dog.’ I felt wicked, for noticing that.” Only away from the church could she feel free enough to write. Otherwise, she would always feel as if a deacon were watching over her shoulder as she typed, saying, “Your character just swore.”

In an early draft of “Enlightenment,” she tried to write about it — that first Sunday morning after leaving the church. She remembers it clear as day: waking up, going to a cafe, ordering a cappuccino, a muesli and a yogurt. Feeding ducks at the park. “I physically felt a heavy weight release from my shoulders. I felt as if I was drifting up.”

She had to discard the scene. It would take thousands upon thousands of words to capture it: The happiest day of her life. The catastrophe of that liberty.

In the past, Perry had worked through periods when money was tight and, in the case of her third novel, “Melmoth,” while recovering from a spinal injury and surgery. But during the pandemic, she lost the will to write. It felt useless, in a time when she wanted badly to be of use. Instead she sewed scrubs for health-care workers and later trained as a vaccinator. At night, with skies clear of pollution, she stood in the yard and photographed nebulas through her telescope.

Overwhelmed with sadness, she texted a doctor friend for advice, and he told her: “It will pass. And eventually, it will come back.” Oddly, she found that more comforting than if he had tried claiming that sorrow flowed only in one direction. The thought of these loops through time — of abandonment and reconciliation, friends and lovers orbiting one another — became the kernel of “Enlightenment.”

At first, Grace took up too much space in the story. Lingering too long inside her perspective was beginning to retrofit Perry’s own memories, filling her with a resentment that didn’t feel authentic: “It was as if I was tinkering with the truth for the sake of making a good story, which was really troubling for me.” As Perry pared back, Thomas came into fuller view, with his cosmic curiosity and his careful efforts to divide his romantic affairs from his moral life. Perry wanted the novel to convey, as fully as possible, the almost gravitational attraction a person might feel to the religion in which they were raised, even one that rejected them. It might come from comfort and habit, yes, but also love: love for one’s parents; love for the sound of the Bible; love for the cool, dim space of the chapel; for the pews where believers had sat for centuries, and where they stood together to sing.

Was it possible to find that feeling again, I asked, without the church? Perry almost laughed at the question. She gestured at the other inn guests camped on the driveway, hoping to see the sun swallowed in darkness, and Mars and Jupiter dotting the afternoon. “This,” she said. Of course, it was one thing to make contact with the sublime, another thing entirely to feel the hand of God. Still, what else could you call this but an act of worship — this transcendent experience, made more beautiful because it was shared?

Cognitively, rationally, we knew the eclipse would occur, with or without our witness. That much was just geometry. Then the sky went silver, and — without thinking, unable to help it — we all rose to our feet.

Novelist Sarah Perry lost her faith — and found her voice (2024)

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