October 27, 2013

Novel about witch trials arrives just in time for Halloween

“The Daylight Gate” by Jeanette Winterson (Grove, $24)

“The Daylight Gate” by Jeanette Winterson (Grove, $24)

Jeanette Winterson’s new novel is a strange and spare piece of horror writing about witch trials that arrives on these shores just in time for Halloween.

“The Daylight Gate” is based on a real-life story of the Pendle Witches, men and women charged in 1612 with using their alleged craft to murder innocents in Lancashire in northwest England. Winterson re-creates the turbulent times that fed the anti-witch hysteria. King James, obsessed with the idea of witchcraft, has ascended to the throne. And Lancashire is famous as a hotbed of thievery and outlawed Catholicism.

“The north of England is untamed,” Winterson begins. “It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.”

Winterson is a shape-shifter of the British literary scene, an author willing to tackle many subjects and forms, including children’s books, memoirs, screenplays and comic books. She’s written science fiction before, in the novel “The Stone Gods,” though she bristled when critics attached the “genre” label to it. Many will also read “The Daylight Gate” as a work of genre, mostly because Winterson gives her stylistic talents a rest as she speeds through a fast-paced plot that’s heavy on dialogue (long passages read more like a screenplay) and light on description.

“Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography” by Richard Rodriguez (Viking, $26.95)

The idea of expulsion – or, more accurately, separation – resides at the center of “Darling,” although (Richard) Rodriguez is also drawn to seek out common ground. “The action of the terrorists,” he writes of 9/11, “was a human action, conceived in error – a benighted act. And yet I worship the same God as they, so I stand in some relation to those men.” For him, this is a key point, that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim God (”the desert God,” he calls it) is one and the same, since if “the Muslim claims Abraham as father, as does the Jew, as do I,” then we are all siblings under the skin.

But lest that seem an easy bit of sophistry, Rodriguez has no interest in smoothing over what keeps us apart. It’s a stunning image of duality, not just between the religious and the worldly, the ancient and the American, but also between the Western and the Moorish, a symbol of the culture clash (on every level) that “Darling” means to explore.

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