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Sarah Perry on her new novel 'Enlightenment'


Sarah Perry's novel "Enlightenment" opens as the Hale–Bopp comet approaches Earth in 1997. Thomas Hart, who writes a local column for the Essex Chronicle in Britain, looks into the sky. It comforts me to think of us all in motion, he writes. Helpless against the forces of time and fate, we are just like the Earth. Then he adds, quoting a noted astronomer, "significantly small but born through the stars."

What follows is a novel that gives us human lives in orbit, drawing strength and absorbing loss from one another and confronting what it may mean to share this life, a faith and fate. Sarah Perry, author of the bestseller "The Essex Serpent," joins us now from Norwich in the U.K. Thank you so much for being with us.

SARAH PERRY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let me begin by asking you to tell us about Thomas Hart. He seems to hear a voice at the front of the novel saying, get on with it, won't you? You're in your 51st...

PERRY: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Year. Where is he in his life?

PERRY: He is a man of 50 who was born and raised in a very, very strict, old-fashioned, almost Victorian, Baptist chapel in a small town in Essex. And as he describes it to himself, he divides his nature from his soul. So he's a gay man who spends his life in London living as an out gay man and a writer. And the rest of his life, he lives in this small town, and he worships at this church, and he divides himself in that way.

But when he is sent out to write about comet Hale-Bopp, it sets in motion a chain of events in which he is no longer able to live such a constrained life. And he finds himself confronted with all kinds of intimacies and challenges and joys.

SIMON: What does he begin to glimpse in the comet, or feel?

PERRY: I'm very, very interested in what I think of as the quality of wonder, which is something shared by all of us, whether we have faith or no faith or however we kind of construct our view of the universe. And as Thomas begins to let go of his faith in the very strict, punishing religious sect that he was raised in, he finds this extraordinary sense of wonder and beauty and lessons in life in the stars. So it's almost like he sort of lost God, and then a comet flew in to the place where God had been.

SIMON: And how do the orbits of life carry Grace Macaulay into his path?

PERRY: He encounters a small child in this chapel in his 30s. And he immediately feels for this child whose mother has died - a kind of affinity, knowing that if he stays in the church, as he describes it, he can put his foot in the chapel door and keep the world available to her. So he wants to stay in the chapel so that he can provide her access to the wildness and the freedom of life beyond the chapel door. And so over the course of the 20 years of the novel, they have this very intimate friendship that's a little bit like a godfather and a godchild.

SIMON: You grew up in what is routinely called a strict religious church. In fact, I gather it's called the Strict Baptists.

PERRY: It is, yes.

SIMON: Does it feel - did it feel strict to you?

PERRY: Very. It was both strict and liberated in different ways. So the best way I can think of describing it is to say to people that I was born in about 1860.


SIMON: What was Lincoln like? I'm sorry. Go ahead.

PERRY: So, you know, all of the things that a child born in the mid-19th century had and did, I had and did. So I wore long skirts and long hair. We didn't have jeans, television, parties, pop music, contemporary novels, cinema, any of those things. But it was compensated for by an enormous access to extraordinary ideas about eternity and morality. And I was very fortunate to have a father who was a scientist and an amateur astronomer and who had a telescope. So it was extremely strict in some respects but very rich in other ways.

SIMON: And looking back, how did you become a writer?

PERRY: It's a strange thing to think of because all I can think is that it's the only thing that I've ever wanted to do. Since I was a very, very, very tiny child, I've been completely in love with language - with the sound that the language makes, with storytelling, with the ability that a story can have to move people or to frighten people.

So I was also raised in a home where great works of literature like Hardy and the Brontes and Dickens and the King James Bible were available to me all of the time. And without television and before the invention of smartphones, what else was I going to do?

SIMON: May I ask, do you spend time looking into the sky and stars?

PERRY: I do. And I happened to buy an extremely good telescope - an 8-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope, which is not small and beautiful, but this enormous piece of kit with the GPS system. And I bought it in February 2020. And of course, a month later, the pandemic closed down the skies and closed down the city where I live and closed down the world. And so I passed the months of the pandemic occupied in a lot of astronomy. The novel tracks my increasing rapture with what I was able to see with my telescope.

SIMON: I mean this question very seriously. I wonder about it myself. Did you see God?

PERRY: I think that it would be proper to say not that I saw God but that I experienced the kind of sensations that call God to mind. All I was doing was looking at an object orbiting around us roughly every 28 days and pinpricks of light in the sky, and yet my feelings were stirred to complete awe and a sense of love.

SIMON: There's a phrase from the novel that I have been replaying in my mind. There's been a death, and somebody says we should never have grown up. And Thomas Hart answers, I'm not sure we have. I'm not sure we can.

PERRY: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: I'm in a mood today to tell you I find it reassuring, but I've been all around on that one.

PERRY: I'm really interested in ideas of time - the ordinary passage of time and the deep time of space but also time as we experience it. And the fact is that you, today, contain the boy you were and the young man that you were and the man that you are now. Those don't become erased because of the passage of time. They just become augmented. And so I think we have these experiences, perhaps by looking at the stars, and our responses are called out of all of the selves that we still contain.

So you might go out and see a comet that might turn up later this year. And there might be, in you, the boy responding in just the same way that he would have done when he was the only version of you that existed, I suppose. Our existences defy time because we live in this moment, but we contain all the previous ones, too.

SIMON: All right. I find that reassuring.

PERRY: (Laughter) Good.

SIMON: Sarah Perry's new novel, "Enlightenment." Thank you so very much for being with us.

PERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.