Good Friday, 1612. Pendle Hill, Lancashire.
A mysterious gathering of thirteen people is interrupted by local magistrate, Roger Nowell. Is this a witches' Sabbat?
notorious Lancashire witches are already in Lancaster Castle waiting
trial. Why is the beautiful and wealthy Alice Nutter defending them? And
why is she among the group of thirteen on Pendle Hill?
a starved, abused child lurks. And a Jesuit priest and former Gunpowder
plotter, recently returned from France, is widely rumoured to be
heading for Lancashire. But who will offer him sanctuary? And how
quickly can he be caught?
This is the reign of James I, a
Protestant King with an obsession: to rid his realm of twin evils,
witchcraft and Catholicism, at any price...
To my mind Winterson is one of the unsung heroes of current weird and supernatural fiction. I've been a fairly devoted reader of her work since I was handed a copy of 'Sexing The Cherry' back in 93 / 94.
This latest excursion into the unusual side of life takes us back to Pendle, Lancashire at the time of the witch hunts where the wealthy newcomer Alice Nutter, proud and confident in her rightness and her self and unwilling to kowtow to local bigwigs and their toadies becomes embroiled in the live of a local family accused of witchcraft. The reign of James the First is an unhealthy time to have any association with witchcraft or popery and Alice has both.
For much of the narrative Winterson retains a degree of period normality, peopling the cast with uneducated, superstitious peasants, officious religious zealots and people just trying to get along in an uncertain time. Behind this though there is an undercurrent of magic about which you are left, for much of the novel, uncertain about whether it is real or simply superstition and vain hope.
The book's devastating final act allows us to see beyond the mundane circumstances and as such we are granted and understanding of both Alice and her motivations.
Over the years there have been several of Winterson's novels that have earned a permanent place on my shelves and I'm pleased that this story of humanity at it's most vile, most compassionate and most incredible will be joining them.
Below is a short snippet from a talk by Winterson about the book. The full version can be found by clicking here.