Sarah Perry whisks us back to the world of The Essex Serpent

Gothic imagination: Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent and Enlightenment
Gothic imagination: Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent and Enlightenment - Jamie Drew

Either the stars have coincidentally aligned or – as I suspect – Sarah Perry exerts some magical pull over the cosmos, for her celestial-minded fourth novel arrives in the wake of a comet and the Great North American eclipse. Enlightenment is quintessential Perry, a richly layered epic contemplating faith, science and the quests and yearnings of the human soul. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and AS Byatt’s Possession, it is a baroque, genre-bending novel of ideas, ghosts and hidden histories.

Perry’s second novel The Essex Serpent was a runaway bestseller, supercharging a vogue for Victorian Gothic. Her third, Melmoth, transposed the myth of Melmoth the Wanderer to modern Prague, while her one non-fiction book, Essex Girls, is a “defence and celebration” of that oft-maligned tribe. Enlightenment marks her return to the world of The Essex Serpent – fans will enjoy encountering its protagonist Cora Seaborne and the village of Aldwinter – and her native county, at whose university she is currently chancellor. It also draws on her Strict Baptist upbringing, a religion she has left due to its limitations on free thinking.

Spanning 20 years in three parts, Enlightenment opens in 1997 in the unremarkable fictional town of Aldleigh, where we meet Thomas Hart, a 50-year-old novelist and Essex Chronicle columnist, and his friend Grace Macaulay, who lives a life of cloistered piety with her aunt Anne and father Ronald. All four are congregants at Bethesda, a Strict and Particular Baptist chapel. Perry movingly explores the conflicting effect of the austere sect on Thomas, who lives a double life, his closeted homosexuality deemed “an affront to God”; and on Grace, who at 17 is “exhausted by all her daily calculations of how to be good”.

Deviating from his usual subjects, Thomas reluctantly accepts a commission to write about the comet Hale-Bopp. He is also invited by the handsome local museum director, James Bower, to view some documents unearthed while renovating Lowlands House, a stately home that has gone to ruin, allegedly haunted. Together, they dig into the mystery of Maria Văduva, who was married to Lowlands’s owner in the 1880s yet left little trace. So begins an all-consuming journey into astronomy, local history and unrequited love. Meanwhile, Grace meets Nathan, an alluring contemporary who opens the door to the worldly temptations of Silk Cut and soap operas.

Thomas’s infatuation with James is entangled with his growing obsession with Maria Văduva, and with astronomy. This passion is also Perry’s, and her soaring prose does its utmost to convey its marvels to the less sky-drunk among us, although you do feel you’re having a full-body baptism in someone else’s hobby. The topic increasingly dominates Thomas’s columns, which are interwoven through the third-person narrative along with letters and diary entries.

Thomas has “an air altogether of occupying a time not his own” while petticoated Grace evokes “a woman who belonged nowhere, and in no time”. Such descriptions are equally applicable to their author, who has joked that she was born around 1890, and whose finely wrought sentences, as ornate and intricate as the constellations, can feel curiously old-fashioned. “From east to west it was a featureless dark canopy, save for a pale place where the low cloud, startled by the rising moon, was dispersing into shining fragments.”

A lip-twitching humour infuses Perry’s metaphors – “the bankrupt politeness of politicians” and “hair set like curls of butter” – and her Gothic sensibility is playful, as Thomas Hart is determinedly haunted by Maria Văduva, all black skirts and stern admonitions. For, although set in modern Essex, Enlightenment has its muddy boots in the past, and draws on the block universe theory in quantum physics to explore the idea that time is happening simultaneously.

With its plangent themes of physical decay, unfulfilled desire and resentment, and its cast of misfits plagued by their histories, Enlightenment reminds us that suffering is the human condition. Yet it is also a heartfelt paean to the consolations of the sublime, where religion and science meet. When his Christianity falters, Thomas turns to physics, but again finds no certainties, and the limits of his understanding require another leap of faith. As the novel builds to a transcendental finale, Perry urges us to “look up, and wonder”.

Enlightenment is published by Jonathan Cape at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books