Soldier Thomas Treadwater returns home on leave from the army, summoned to Norfolk by a pleading letter from his sister Esther. ‘Our home is under attack by a great and ungodly evil’, she writes. The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews is a tale of religious extremism and intolerance, fear of witches, superstition and the power of evil. The atmosphere at all times is full of foreboding. As Thomas approaches his father’s farm at dawn, he sees dead animals in the field. This is 17th century Norfolk when England is riven by civil war. The story of Thomas and Esther, narrated by Thomas in two timelines – 1643 and 1703 – is ultimately a slow one. The beginning is excellent, ‘She is awake,’ and moves quickly as Thomas investigates the strange goings-on. When this moves from witchcraft to theology and the meaning of evil, the pace slows. The explanation of the title is remarkably late in arriving and I was distracted by trying to fit ‘the leviathan’ into the domestic story of the Treadwater family.
According to Esther, their religious father has been corrupted by their servant Chrissa Moore who is with child. Richard Treadwater is now insensible after suffering a stroke and cannot explain. Chrissa, since accused of witchcraft and imprisoned, denies she is pregnant. When Esther must give evidence in front of the Justice of the Peace, Sir Christopher Manyon, and his assistant John Rutherford, Thomas realises Esther herself may be charged as a deviant. Struggling to understand what is happening, he turns to his former tutor John Milton, for help. It was only after finishing The Leviathan that I made the connection with the real poet and author of Paradise Lost.
Steeped in historical detail and the superstitions of the time, the early mystery of the unexplained deaths and the accusations of witchcraft are well written but this momentum is lost as the story transitions to one about possession and evil. All of it is a metaphor for the cruel and intolerant acts of war when sensible men behave without reason.
I struggled for an emotional connection to the story and wonder if a second viewpoint – perhaps of Mary – may help, also sharper transitions between the three phases of story which seem oddly disconnected. But the early passage of Thomas walking home with his horse Ben is particularly lovely. I finished it not knowing what to think, wanting to like it more, in awe of the scope of subject matter and the intensity of writing.
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