Book Review

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews


Norfolk, 1643. With civil war tearing England apart, reluctant soldier Thomas Treadwater is summoned home by his sister, who accuses a new servant of improper conduct with their widowed father. By the time Thomas returns home, his father is insensible, felled by a stroke, and their new servant is in prison, facing charges of witchcraft.

Thomas prides himself on being a rational, modern man, but as he unravels the mystery of what has happened, he uncovers not a tale of superstition but something dark and ancient, linked to a shipwreck years before.

Something has awoken, and now it will not rest.

Richly researched, incredibly atmospheric, and deliciously unsettling, The Leviathan is set in England during a time of political and religious turbulence. It is a tale of family and loyalty, superstition, and sacrifice, but most of all it is a spellbinding mystery and a story of impossible things.

The Leviathan opens with a particularly chilling line:

She is awake.

It’s a simple sentence and yet one that manages to convey a great deal even though the reader knows so little at this stage.  Who is the “she” that the statement refers to, and what is the significance of her awakening?  Combined with a letter from several years earlier, it’s an intriguing opening and one that pulls the reader in. 

The novel than takes us back some 60 years earlier to 1643 where we meet Thomas Treadwater, battle-weary and wounded, on his return home for a period of leave from the English Civil War.  He carries with him a letter from his younger sister, Esther, begging him to return.  Despite having missed his family, he is wary of the letter’s contents with its accusations of witchcraft against a servant and hints of unwholesome goings on between this woman and Thomas’s father.  He is largely dismissive of the claims, believing some childish jealousy on Esther’s part, but can’t help but wonder what has happened to prompt such a missive.  Upon arriving home, he finds a dire situation.  His father’s sheep – a primary source of income for the Treadwater family – lie dead or dying, cause unknown.  His father lies in bed insensible following a stroke.  And Chrissa – the accused servant – has been jailed by the witchfinder, John Rutherford.  Struggling to unravel it all, Thomas becomes caught up in events which he could never have anticipated. 

Thomas is an interesting character but one that I did not find hugely sympathetic to begin with.  He seems openminded and yet is quick to judge Chrissa when he first meets her and is not above a little political manoeuvring when it suits him.  I did grow to like him more as the novel progressed, however, and he shows himself to be a character who is able to admit to his mistakes and who is willing and open to change.  I liked learning more of his past as Andrews shares his backstory, including the reason he and his father parted on bad terms – something that’s hinted at early on and yet not fully revealed at first.  It’s a situation that is likely to go unresolved given his father’s condition upon his return, and there’s a sense of regret at how things have turned out.  It brings Thomas to life for the reader, and I felt myself softening towards him and his situation as events escalate.  

I love the depiction of the time in which the novel is set, and I think that Andrews perfectly encapsulates these changing times in Thomas’s character.  It’s a time of religious fervour in which the church holds sway and Thomas’s family is deeply religious, something that we come to understand through his memories of his father as well as through Esther who seems to be a particularly pious young woman.  Thomas himself, however, is no longer a believer, if he ever was, and I think that this captures the shift towards philosophical thinking and science and reason which is taking place at the time and which undermines church doctrine.  There is, of course, a sweet irony in such a rational character getting caught up in the events of The Leviathan which challenge Thomas’s logical mindset and his disbelief emphasises the strangeness of these events. 

I enjoyed the sections examining the superstitions of the time as well as witchcraft and the actions of the witchfinders.  One element that I particularly enjoyed is that there is nothing gratuitous in Chrissa’s imprisonment or trials. This shouldn’t be noteworthy and yet it has stuck with me after reading the novel, but Andrews avoids straying into the territory of abuse, and Chrissa is treated with a modicum of respect by those who hold her captive.  I also like the acknowledgement that accusations of witchcraft were often made against women with some knowledge of herbs and healing, or those who had somehow slighted someone with a high sense of self-importance, whether through rejecting their advances or an imagined slight.  Thomas is rational enough to acknowledge this even though it might reflect badly on his family, and he wants to get to the truth of the matter whereas others are happy to denounce Chrissa as a witch.  It’s nicely done and while it’s not necessarily unique I think it’s noteworthy.

The Leviathan is a fantastic novel – a wonderful piece of historical fiction which evolves into a Gothic horror.  The novel achieves an eerie atmosphere from the beginning and the tension builds gradually as the plot develops beyond the initial hints of witchcraft.  Beautifully written, it’s a novel that I recommend to fans of Sarah Perry.

The Leviathan is published by Bloomsbury Raven on 3 February.  Huge thanks to the publisher for providing a copy as part of a competition giveaway.

Disclaimer – I received a copy of this novel from the publisher. This has in no way influenced my review.


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