As promised, we have a review today of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, one of the sixteen fiction books that have made more than one “best of” list so far this year. In other news, also as promised I took a look at A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and Tenth of December, and unfortunately I won’t be reviewing either–but I do want to make some comments on George Saunders’s Tenth of December. Overall, this collection is uneven, and several stories are entirely lacking in teen appeal. On the other hand, there are a few stories here that would make great discussion pieces for an English class or book group. So if you’re looking for short stories for teens, you might look closely at “Escape from Spiderhead”–a very nice highbrow take on the current teen dystopia trend–and “Victory Lap”–which features two teens fighting off a kidnapper.
But back to the novel at hand. Winterson’s take on the real life Pendle Witch Trials is, as always with Winterson, gorgeously evocative. It should also be an easy sell to teens with its ever-popular topic of witches. As our reviewer notes, most American teens are familiar with the Salem Witch Trials, which text books tend to treat as some sort of bizarre aberration of mob mentality in Massachusetts. But witch trials were a frequent occurrence in England and Europe, and this novel could open up readers’ eyes to this fact of Early Modern life. Regardless of the history, though, it’s a ripping good tale and a great recommendation for teens.
WINTERSON, Jeanette. The Daylight Gate. 240p. Grove. 2013. Tr $24. ISBN 9780802121639. LC 2013036981.
Adult/High School–“Witchery popery popery witchery” is the repeated refrain of Thomas Potts, the lawyer who is determined to prosecute anyone he can for high treason against King James, whether the treason is in the form of witchcraft or Catholicism. “What is worse, sir? A High Mass or a Black Mass?” says Potts. His view sets the stage for a retelling of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire, England. Winterson’s atmospherically gorgeous tale enters the lives of the participants and adds onto the facts by creating a fully realized backstory for one of the convicted witches, Alice Nutter. In Winterson’s version, Alice is wealthy and respected, having invented a magenta dye and having once worked for Queen Elizabeth. But she is also mysterious, beautiful, and smooth-skinned even though she is quite old. When on Good Friday, 1612, she meets with members of the Demdike family, her fate becomes entangled with theirs. What is more, she is also connected to a Jesuit whose presence in England is enough to get both of them executed. Winterson gradually reveals details of Alice’s relationship with the matriarch of the Demdikes, and the relationship of both to the alchemist John Dee and to someone known only as The Dark Gentleman. This is a quick read, beautifully written and darkly moody, and the creepiness–a severed tongue, a talking head, a voodoo doll, torture, bribery, intimidation–will draw in teens, especially those who are familiar with other witch trials, like those in Salem.–Sarah Flowers, formerly at Santa Clara County Library, CA