The Heretics Daughter by Kathleen Kent is a novel about the relationships between women set during the Witchcraft Trials of Salem.
Martha Carrier was hanged
on August 19th, 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, unyielding in her refusal
to admit to being a witch, going to her death rather than joining the
ranks of men and women who confessed and were thereby spared execution.
Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and wilful, openly
challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. In this
startling novel, she narrates the story of her early life in Andover,
near Salem. Her father is a farmer, English in origin, quietly stoical
but with a secret history. Her mother is a herbalist, tough but loving,
and above all a good mother. Often at odds with each other, Sarah and
her mother have a close but also cold relationship, yet it is clear that
Martha understands her daughter like no other. When Martha is accused
of witchcraft, and the whisperings in the community escalate, she makes
her daughter promise not to stand up for her if the case is taken to
court. As Sarah and her brothers are hauled into the prison themselves,
the vicious cruelty of the trials is apparent, as the Carrier family,
along with other innocents, are starved and deprived of any decency,
battling their way through the hysteria with the sheer willpower their
mother has taught them.
I picked this up because it was on sale, and I’m glad I did.
I wasn’t expecting much from a book from the bargain bin at Tesco. I was wrong, and I’ve never been so glad to be so. The Heretics Daughter is a wonderful book; a musing on female relationships, religious hypocrisy and the unfairness and brutality of settler life. It’s also incredibly well written, with passages of almost poetic beauty.
I’m going to take a minute here and talk about ‘good writing’. Good writing doesn’t have to mean flowery, poetic prose. All ‘Good writing’ has to cover is that the author is using the best language and description to tell the story and effectively build a sense of atmosphere. The type of book is important in considering whethere something is good writing or not- a brutal horror would seem pretentious if told using poetic language, for example. Simple prose can be just as good as flowery and poetic. The most important thing is that the author has spent the time crafting the book so that the prose reflects and intensifies the story.
You may not be able to pin down what good writing is, but the more you read the easier it is to spot the opposite.
In the case of The Heretics Daughter, Kent uses language to build a sense of place and time, as well as to increase the sense of isolation and fear felt towards the later sections of the book. The way she writes about the natural environment highlights the emotional environment of our protagonist. It is very impressive.
This is a book that stands up well to re-reading, which is a good thing. It’s a slow burner, and can feel like nothing is happening in the first few chapters, but the set up is necessary. Besides, I dislike the recent trend towards dropping you in at the middle of the action. I know that people say it grabs the attention, but I find it confuses and irritates. I don’t like unnecessary scenes, but I like a chapter or two of interesting set up, if I can have it. Being based on a real story – and Kathleen Kents own ancestors too – adds a certain extra element. Obviously, we can’t know for certain if the real people felt or thought this way – always a problem with historical fiction – but I have no problems believing they might have.
I keep getting good books lately (not something to complain about). I need something bad to stop myself becoming a fluffy-bunnies oh-glorious-literature type reviewer.
Can you imagine anything worse?
4 out 5. Again.