Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Lost Book of Salem by Katherine Howe

While clearing out her grandmother's cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. And so begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name, a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 . . . and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance's spell book, the Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.

What secrets does the Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer these questions - and reveal the truth about Salem's women - before an ancient family curse once more fulfils its dark and devastating prophecy . . .

Apparently, over in the States, the book is called The Physic Book of Deliverance Dane, which certainly has a ring to it.

Either way, the book is such a special treat.  It is a dual narrative, set both in our "modern" time as well as in 1692, working forwards from there, giving us snippets of Deliverance Dane's heritage to her daughters and granddaughters.

What struck me the most about Ms. Howe's novel is the quality of the writing - it borders on poetry in some instances when she describes this hidden house the main character, Connie, has to live in whilst clearing it.  I got a great sense of place and luxuriated in the description of the house and the tanglewood garden.  What also helped was that the novel takes place over Summer so the writing has a cloying, dreamlike feel which suited the narrative perfectly.  I loved Connie's character and the mystery surrounding the fantastically named Deliverance Dane.  I could just imagine someone like Jethro Tull or even Fleetwood Mac writing a song in her honour.

US Cover and title - very pretty!

I digress. The novel is wonderfully layered as we have Connie who is quite pragmatic and sensible working on her big dissertation for her Phd.  She grew up in unusual circumstances as her mum travelled with her a lot.  Her mum is a seeker and is convinced she can heal people by the laying on of hands.   Connie can't help but feel like her mum is play-acting at it all and that she runs away from confronting the reality of life.  Case in point, leaving her grandmother's house to lay undisturbed for several years, acruing taxes, before doing anything about it - i.e. asking Connie to go clear it out over the Summer holidays and get it ready to put on the market.

On the one had we have a pretty rubbish situation for Connie, a personal dilemma, and on the other hand, we have her very demanding tutor at university asking her to start work on her dissertation and to work hard at getting hold of some kind of original source.

As Connie finds evidence of Deliverance Dane in her grandmother's old cottage and she starts researching Deliverance, we move backwards and forwards in time in an attempt to make sense of both their stories.  I read another review that said the novel was weighed down by description.  One person may have thought that but I loved it.  I found it interesting and enjoyed Connie's process at figuring out what exactly was going on even if she occasionally came across as being a bit silly when it came to making sense of personal names and different spellings of items listed in old catalogues and diary entries.  I suspect the author showed Connie making mistakes like this to prevent us from thinking that Connie was a knowitall and we all know no one likes a knowitall!

It is a novel that looks at the past and how it informs us in present.  It is a story of a young woman who discovers much about herself in the process of the novel and can be seen as a rite of passage novel.  The research she goes in to to discover what she needs to find about Deliverance Dane and her own family history is thoughtfully written.

If I am pushed, I'd say that I genuinely did not like her mother.  I know why the author wrote the character the way she did, but I found myself skipping the dialogues Connie ended up having with her mum.  She was maybe a bit too new agey and it didn't ring true to me.

I can definitely recommend this as a lazy summer's read by the pool or on the beach.  It is a fun historical novel, firmly anchored in the witch trials of Salem but told in a very private and beautifully evocative way.

Find Katherine Howe's website here.  The Lost Book of Salem is available (and has been for some time now) in the UK from Penguin.


serendipity_viv said...

I got this book for Christmas two years ago and still I haven't read it. Sigh! I love anything to do with witches; I must read it soon.

Nikki-ann said...

That US cover is available in the UK too as my copy has that cover (and I think I got it from Tesco). I loved the book too :)

Unknown said...

It sounds really interresting - I am fascinated by the Salem Witch Trails. Great review :D