It was partly the setting that attracted me to Sarah Perry’s first novel – I love Norfolk’s huge sky and lovely coastline – but the blurb was enticing, too, and I don’t say that very often. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heat wave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name. So far, so spooky and it becomes more so when John comes down for dinner and finds himself ignored, then drawn into a conversation in which most of the house’s inhabitants seem to think he knows why he’s there. Unnerved, John begins to make a record of what’s happened in a notebook he finds in his room. It soon becomes clear that this is a case of mistaken identity but what gives Perry’s novel a twist is John’s deliberate collusion in that mistake.
Perry’s characters are a decidedly rum bunch, each of them troubled in some way: Elijah is a priest made sick with anxiety about his loss of faith; Alex is deeply vulnerable and made more so by the poison pen letters that play on his fears; Clare, his oddly childlike sister, frets about her brother’s mental state; Eve, their friend, is a talented yet frustrated pianist with whom the aloof Walker is obsessed. Over it all presides Hester, physically unprepossessing but firmly in control. During the course of a week, John – buttoned-up and rootless – finds himself embroiled in the tangled relationships of the household as each of them confides in him. It ends in tears with a birthday party and a storm.
It’s not quite the psychological thriller I was expecting from the first few chapters – it’s a much more subtle book than that in which Perry takes her time, skilfully revealing what has brought this intense household together. She vividly summons up the discomfiting claustrophobia of a household seething with unspoken resentments, powerfully conveying John’s bafflement at the odd company he finds himself in and his inability to extract himself from it. Although Elijah is the novel’s only explicitly religious character, its seven-day trajectory and Alex’s terror of flood has connotations of the Christian creation myth, particularly given Perry’s deeply religious upbringing. It’s not without faults – the end had a bit too much of the King Lears for me – but it’s an atmospheric, thought-provoking novel which keeps you guessing.
Let’s hope that Sarah Perry doesn’t join the band of unsung women authors of which there are many. Ali from Heavenali and I have both contributed five each of our favourites to Naomi’s post at The Writes of Women written as part of her response to the Man Booker’s ten men/three women long list. Naomi and Antonia Honeywell will be posting their selections over the weekend but if you have any yourself I’d love to hear about them.