The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

A very interesting tale, set mainly in the 1640s, of witchcraft, murder and deceit in Norfolk, England. The first-time author, Rosie Andrews, has done a fine job of weaving together a mystery yarn with engaging characters and authentic-sounding details of life at this turbulent time in English history.

The story pivots on the relationships between three key characters: Thomas Treadwater, his sister Esther, who is sixteen, and their former servant Crissa Moore. Thomas is a former scholar who returns home to the isolated family farm after fighting in the Civil War. He finds his father dying, his sister Esther in a strange place mentally and Crissa Moore accused of witchcraft. Besides finding many of the farm’s sheep dead, Thomas himself is struggling with a severe wound from a recent battle.

Things go from bad to worse when Thomas hears that Miss Moore claims she is pregnant to his dying father.

An important sub-plot is the way the system delivers justice or not. While the local magistrate Sir Christopher Manyon appears more fair-minded, his subordinate John Rutherford takes his duties as the witchfinder very seriously. Rutherford is a widower who takes an interest in young Esther, which doesn’t thrill Thomas, her brother.

The scene where Thomas meets Crissa Moore for the first time in jail is well written. Shortly afterwards the bodies of two women are found in a nearby cell and suspicion falls on the alleged witch. Crissa maintains her silence to court officials and only gives Thomas a name who she says will explain her circumstances. We then accompany Thomas on his journey to try and find out the truth behind these deaths.

Andrews has done a good job of depicting Tom as a basically good man, who’s made mistakes, but who is trying to right a wrong and also defend his troubled sister.

One interesting feature is the idea that many people at this time believed in witchcraft, which we would mostly regard as misguided or foolish. Details like the witchfinder staying up at night outside a prison cell, to observe some creature like a toad carrying a message from an accused woman, seems bizarre to us. However, I reflected on what some people during Covid thought were cures, and I wasn’t quite as smug in my superiority. Or consider how social media trolls dish out abuse to celebrity females and the days of witch-finding don’t seem that far removed in a sense.

Some of the vocabulary Andrews uses will stretch your linguistic skills. Do you know these: Rufous-hued fire, surcease, ill-wishing, privy, sideration, a sennight after the Epiphany.  She also captures the tone and style of speech of the period well, in my opinion.

But the honour a man offered a guest reflected the honour he owed himself, or so my father had taught me. (Thomas thinking to himself)

Oh, a physician would make a pretty addition to this picture,” she said, still cackling. (Esther to her brother)

A less successful feature of the book for me, was the time-shifting from the 1640s back and forth sixty years to 1703. I occasionally forgot which period I was reading about and who was who. Also, I had to reorient myself to the current goings-on and where we were before moving forward (or backwards) in time.

Another interesting note is the inclusion of John Milton, the poet who wrote Paradise Lost, in the story. He is said to be a distant relative of Treadwater’s father and takes on the role of tutor to Tom. This ends in disgrace for Tom and his being packed off home. Later in the story, Tom reluctantly askes for his help with his sister’s mental condition.

In the background of this yarn is the English Civil War and the great upheaval it caused across the country. In one sense the fabled sea monster of the title is a metaphor for this destruction of trust in your fellow citizens. We may not readily believe a giant sea monster could destroy a sailing ship but perhaps accept that a young woman can suffer a demonic mental break-down and then act out violently.

I would soundly recommend this novel because of its clever plot, interesting period setting and engaging writing.

Rosie Andrews was born in Liverpool, England, the third of twelve children. She attended Cambridge University and later became an English teacher. She lives with her husband and daughter in Hertfordshire.

The Leviathan

(2022)

by Rosie Andrews

Bloomsbury

ISBN: 978 152663 734 5

$29.99; 320pp

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