This novel (my third of 16+ to read in 2017) was another bargain-bin find which I snapped up at the beginning of January. The choice was a no-brainer. How could I resist the title, the cover illustration of aged parchment, herbs and an old key, plus reviews which promised “spine-tingling witchery”, “a captivating thriller of the hidden powers of women throughout the centuries” and “literary alchemy”? I dove right in, and, for the most part, wasn’t disappointed.
This debut novel by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2009), is set in New England in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to the Salem witch trials of 1692. (Howe claims to be a descendant of two trial victims – one who survived, and one who did not.) I was snared from the start by yet another case of the Stone Cottage Syndrome; I fall for this woman-inherits-old-fixer-upper plot every time. But there’s much more to the story, and it kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours.
Into the cauldron of delicious witchiness, Howe throws the discovery of a centuries-old relic and the search for a long-lost book of shadows, plant lore and spells, a taste of ivy-league academia, plus fascinating facts about the Puritans and what may have led to those 17th century witch trials – all the criteria, as far as I’m concerned, for a ripping good yarn.
I wanted to love this book, but found that, the farther in I got, I could only like it. There were times, however, when I was just plain irritated.
The first half of the story is well-paced and forms the bones of the book: a spooky thriller. But I feel that the author loses her way and allows events to bubble over the brim just a bit near the end. That’s not to say what’s left in the pot is a burnt mess; only that a tighter narrative and more judicious editing would have made for a rather more satisfying brew. But I cannot forgive Howe for making Connie, the heroine – a gifted Harvard PhD candidate – incredibly obtuse when presented with the most obvious of clues. I had the mystery figured out from the very first one (basic facts that a specialist in American colonial history like Connie couldn’t fail to know), but it takes her pages and pages before the lantern finally flickers on.
Those sins aside, I’m glad that I picked up this novel – happier still that I paid only $3 for it. (It was, by the way, originally published in the U.K. as The Lost Book of Salem, and retitled later.) And I’m willing to give Howe another try; her subsequent novels are The House of Velvet and Glass (2012), Conversion (2014) – which includes brief cameos by two Dane characters – and The Appearance of Annie van Sinderin (2015). She has also published The Penguin Book of Witches, a 2014 work of non-fiction.