Results of the Whitbread Book Award in the year 1989.
It is the early 1980s. Alex Darken, devastated by a broken marriage, has retreated to a remote village in the bleak flatlands of eastern England. On the Easterness Estate he meets the volatile, aging poet Edward Nesbit and his vibrant, psychic, young American lover, Laura. Slowly, he is drawn into a strange relationship with them as they piece together the lost studies of two of the present lord’s ancestors.
In 1849, Sir Henry Agnew and his elegant, brilliant daughter Louisa, were about to penetrate the last secrets of the mystical art of alchemy. They, like the researches a century and a half later, see in the “chemical wedding” of opposites—sulphur and quicksilver, spirit and matter, male and female, reality and imagination—a key to spiritual rebirth. As Edward, Laura, and Alex mirror the Agnew story, dreams and symbols, erotic ecstasy and philosophical argument, climax in a vision which, like those before them, they can grasp only as they skirt insanity and tragedy….