Upon reading Megan Chance's brilliant novel of hysteria, hypnosis and homicide "An Inconvenient Wife" I was determined to read everything she had written. At the time that included only one other novel, "Susannah Morrow." (By the way there is another author named Megan Chance who writes romance novels. This is the same person but I haven't read any of the romance novels yet so can't vouch for them. But Chance is great so I suspect they're not bad.)
I expected this novel, a story of the Salem witch trials is broken up in three parts told from the perspective of fictional characters: Charity Fowler, a 16 year old girl, Lucas Fowler, her father and Susannah Morrow, Charity's mother's sister.
Charity has the first third. Susannah arrives just as Charity's mother is giving birth to what is her last child and she dies in the process, leaving Susannah to take over running the household. But from the beginning, immediately after her mother's death Charity begins to see her mother's ghosts, warning her of evil and in the company of a black man (the devil.) Not trusting her aunt and believing the village rumors she was once an actress Charity falls into the company of her old friends-who once convinced her to commit a terrible sin. Soon they are visiting the preacher's house, where a black slave (Tituba) begins to teach them spells....
Here Lucas takes over the narrative, telling of the time when the village girls begin to fall to mysterious ailments, barking and shivering, claiming they are being forced to sign the devils book, being pinched by witches-and startling the village into paranoia and suspicion of everyone. At the same time, Lucas' obsession and physical attraction to his dead wife's sister begin to consume him, and he doesn't notice his daughter's dangerous fear and anger until it is far too late...
The rest is Susannah's story. I won't say what she goes through. That would spoil it.
The first person narration in this book is very similar to the kind used in "An Inconvenient Wife" very descriptive but at the same time sparse and a little dreamy. This reflects well with the setting as the village of Salem is so small and isolated, so cold with winter coming on that you can feel the chill winds, find your bones weary with the hard chores and long walks between houses to communicate with anyone, and the constant fear of Indian attack, illness, and evil. It is a perfectly portrayed atmosphere which stays consistent through the novel, though it is seen differently by all three characters.
In the end I enjoyed this immensely but had a very hard time getting into this novel-I picked it up and put it down several times before I reached page 80, but finally things got more interesting and I stuck with it. Aside from the slow start something that dragged the novel down was the fragmented narration-it was great to know what everyone felt about things of course, but I would have loved to have Charity's perspective on the latter parts of the book and because of its lack I completely stopped understanding her. Was she mad with grief, faking madness or something else altogether? How did she really feel about the accusations of over 100 friends and neighbors-one as young as four years old, were accused of witchcraft and 19 where hung for it? For that matter how did others in the village. A wider view would have made this novel better for me, but really it's about one family's experience through the trials, not a novel about the event in whole.
And I believe that this book accomplished what must have been the author's goal-to bring the horror and confusion and mob madness that infected New England to the light and expose what happened in all its lack of glory.
Still I can't say I enjoyed this book as much as "An Inconvenient Wife." In spite of all the history involved, there is really less of a story and plot here because of the fragmentation of the book. However the writing style and overall tone has reinforced my conviction that Megan Chance is an author to watch out for and I plan on reading her third book as soon as I finish this review.
Three stars (but perhaps this is because of suffering by comparison.)
A question for those who know more about the Salem witch trials then me- wasn't there a real charity involved in the trials somehow? Or do I have it wrong that this one was fictional (though the author herself states it in her after note...) anyway, let me know!