I was drawn to this book, Rosie Andrews’ debut, by the title, the cover and the comparisons to other books I’ve read, such as The Essex Serpent, Once Upon a River and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – comparisons which for once turned out to be quite accurate!
It’s 1643 and Thomas Treadwater is on his way home to the family farmhouse in Norfolk. England is currently torn apart by civil war but Thomas has been summoned home from the fighting by his sixteen-year-old sister, Esther, who has accused a new servant of seducing their widowed father. Arriving back at the farm, Thomas finds the sheep dead in their field, with no visible signs of violence – and there are bigger shocks to come. Entering the house, he learns from Esther that their father has suffered a stroke and is dying, and the servant, Chrissa, has been arrested on suspicion of witchcraft.
What follows is a story which at first appears to be a tale of witch hunting in the 17th century, but eventually develops into something even darker and more unusual as Thomas discovers links with a shipwreck that occurred years earlier. The narrative moves back and forth between the 1640s and the year 1703, where Thomas is now living in ‘a place far from the sea’ and is trying to come to terms with what happened in the past and the impact it is still having on his life in the present.
I loved the first half of The Leviathan. The atmosphere is wonderful and the author creates an authentic sense of time and place through attention to detail and careful research. The pace is slow as characters are introduced and the scene is set, but I quickly became drawn into the story, intrigued by the mystery surrounding the ‘witch’ Chrissa Moore and the strange events at the Treadwater farm. There’s a real aura of mystery as Thomas begins to investigate, speaking to the witchfinder, the magistrate and the witch herself in an attempt to find out what is really going on.
In the second half of the book, the magical realism elements of the novel come to the forefront and the story then goes too far in that direction for my taste. The pace speeds up and things become more exciting, but the sinister, slowburning sense of foreboding that I loved in the earlier chapters was gone. I was still invested enough in this part of the book to read on to the end and I was interested to see that John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) makes some appearances as Thomas Treadwater’s former tutor and has some input into the unfolding of the story, taking it into the territory of biblical allegory. This is a novel with lots of layers, and although it wasn’t a complete success for me, I think other readers will love it much more than I did.
Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 5/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.