Witch trials, with their heady mix of religious fervour, misogyny and repressed desire, have held an enduring fascination for fiction writers. Rosie Andrews’s enormously enjoyable debut, The Leviathan, takes this familiar setup and makes of it something strange and original: part horror story, part fantasy, part historical mystery.
The body of the story takes place in 1643, at the onset of the English civil war. The narrator, Thomas Treadwater, a young man enlisted to fight for the parliamentary forces in order to redeem himself from an indiscretion with his tutor’s niece, returns for Christmas to his family farm in Norfolk with a sense of foreboding; his 16-year-old sister, Esther, has written to him of “a great ungodly evil” that has entered the house in the form of a new servant, Chrissa Moore. Tom arrives to find all their livestock dead, his father incapacitated by a stroke and Chrissa arrested for witchcraft. In order to delay her trial, she has claimed to be pregnant with his father’s child.
Tom does not believe in witchcraft, but when the two servants accused along with Chrissa are found dead in the next cell, he is forced to accept that sinister forces may be at work. The reader is ahead of him here, because the story is intercut with chapters set 60 years later, recounted by Tom as an old man, living in terror of the woman locked up in his attic.
The clue is in the title, of course, though to say more would be to give away the story’s unexpected twists. Young Tom is obliged to seek help from the one person who can shed light on the mystery – his former tutor, who happens to be John Milton, a man well versed in dissecting the nature of good and evil.
Andrews writes with a finely attuned ear for the language of the period. Though the complex politics of the early civil war remain largely in the background, she clearly knows the history well, and confidently evokes the atmosphere of the age: the sense of turbulence that comes with living through a time of revolution.