After 40 years of not reading a book about the Salem witch trials (could the last one have been Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond?), I just read two, back to back. What’s up with that? What is it in the zeitgeist that made two gifted and competent authors think about Salem and say to themselves, “Hey! That’s a great idea?”
The problem with the situation is that invidious comparisons ensue. If you’d told me I would prefer The Lace Reader, the book with narration by the suicidal victim of incest, I wouldn’t have believed you. But you have to give it to the crazies, they get a grip on you. And weirdly, all that careful historical stuff from The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane — which was the best part for sure — has faded next to the charm of loony Towner Whitney. As she calls herself. But she lies, she tells you that right away.
So you spend the novel trotting along, panting slightly, trying to discern What Really Happened. There are uneven spots. In places the narrative shifts into a more temperate omniscience — in part to fill you in on actual facts, and to get you into the head of the appealing town cop, Rafferty — but it can’t compete with Towner’s superheated storytelling. And what happens when you tell a story with a fractured chronology like this is that sometimes the exposition happens awkwardly, or too late. Brunonia Barry has invented a wonderful Bad Man who among other sins runs a fundamentalist church in contemporary Salem, full of self-aggrandizement and narrow-mindedness and dubious exorcisms. But it isn’t quite clear who they all are until a little late in the game, well after they’ve interrupted a funeral by tangling with some of Salem’s witches. Also contemporary.
Roughly, the plot has Towner returning to Salem for her beloved aunt’s funeral (see above) and having to face down the ghosts of her teenage years. Ghosts include the death of her beloved twin sister, her mother’s chilly and authoritarian childrearing practices, her aunt’s spooky way of reading secrets in lace, a jilted boyfriend, etc. etc. Only remember that she lies. Brilliantly.