Review: The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

This debut novel by Rosie Andrews is a slow burn for much of its first half—building atmosphere, hinting at shadows, but keeping its cards quite close to its chest—before diving (pardon the pun) into a more authentically horrific vision as it gains considerable, and welcome, momentum in the second half.

In 17th century Norfolk, Thomas Treadwater, injured and humbled by his experiences fighting in the English Civil War, is making a brief visit home, tail between his legs but eager to find comfort with his family. His sister, Esther, has peppered his time away with letters about strife at home and wanton servants, but he puts her distress down to her youth and fragility. On arriving home, however, he finds the fields full of dead livestock, no servants in the house, his sister hysterical, and father insensible and bedridden after a stroke.

All this calamity is ascribed to a new servant, Chrissa Moore, who Esther has denounced as a witch to the local magistrate and his witchfinder. For her part, this ‘witch’ is saying nothing in her own defence, except to say she’s now with child, by Thomas’s stricken father. Thomas, incredulous of any supernatural basis to these claims, yet desparate to clear his father’s name, protect his sister from recrimination, and restore the family’s social credit, seeks to investigate Chrissa Moore’s background. In doing so, he uncovers a darker history to his own family and the coming threat of a true monster.

All of this takes a bit longer to get going than is comfortable, however. Thomas starts out as a a very self-indulgent and dreary narrator, and the ponderous pace with which we find ourselves listening to him can be hard going. But you soon realise you’re getting a contrasting insight into the man he will later become; a man of measured voice and greater self-possession, whose story runs parallel to that of his tiresome younger counterpart.

Different timelines are presented concurrently in the novel, and handled very deftly too: while young Thomas carries out his investigations into Chrissa Moore in one chapter, the greatly aged Thomas deals with their abiding consequences for his family in the next. The two threads weave back and forth, but after a mildly jarring opening, you soon get used to the shifting focus. It’s almost helpful that young Thomas’s story is that bit more slow-moving in the first half, to give your ear time to adjust to the differing points of view and finally appreciate the changes in the man you’re getting to witness, side-by-side.

Setting and atmosphere triumph over character in Leviathan. Characters, especially in the early sections, can be a little predictable and tropish, but the places and hours they occupy are compelling and alive, and genuinely unsettling. Descriptions are rich and sensory throughout. There’s a strong cinematic element to the writing, once the pace begins to lift, and shades of both Robert Eggers’s The Witch and Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England are both evoked by Andrews’s prose.

You need to persist with this book, because the latter parts will really keep you glued to it. What starts as aloof and tightly-laced, becomes torn and bloody by the end and once you finally connect with Thomas, his whole story has a powerful payoff. Worth anyone’s while.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance copy of this book.

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