Friday 27 March 2020

A Discovering Diamonds review of Witch Light by Susan Fletcher reviewed by Annie Whitehead

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family drama

"the sort of read from which you emerge, having been fully immersed in the setting."

"1692. Corrag, a wild young girl from the mountains of Scotland, has been imprisoned as a witch. Terrified, in a cold, filthy cell, she awaits her fate of death by burning – until she is visited by Charles Leslie, a young Irishman, hungry to question her. For Corrag knows more than it seems: she was witness to the bloody and brutal Massacre of Glencoe.
But to reveal what she knows, Corrag demands a chance to tell her true story. It is a tale of passion and courage, magic and betrayal, and the difference that a single heart can make to the great events of history."

An original idea, and an intriguing premise; this book certainly piques the interest and keeps you wondering. The devices used, of conversation and letters, lend an immediacy to the tale. Corrag speaks to Mr Leslie, while each chapter ends with his going back to his lodgings and writing a letter to his wife in Ireland. 

Let me get (most of) the very few niggles out of the way first.

There are no speech marks anywhere in the book. When Corrag talks, any reported conversation is in italics. When Mr Leslie writes, all of his words to his wife are in italics except when he's reporting speech. You get used to it, but on the first few pages it is not clear that Corrag is talking to anyone other than the reader, and the italics are frequent and distracting. Stick with it, though, and they become less intrusive. I must confess to wondering about Mr Leslie’s discretion. He ( a secret Jacobite) worries that he dare not speak openly about his sympathies to anyone he meets, yet he is happy to commit his treasonous thoughts to paper and send the letters across to Ireland. Has he not seen what always happens to riders with secret dispatches? (They can expect to get ambushed in a forest. Every time.) There are a few instances of confusion between the verbs lay and lie, even in the past tense. This is not consistent, however, so clearly the author knows the correct forms. I assume therefore that these were errors at the proofreading stage. It had a jarring effect and lifted me right out of the story which, when it gets going, is compelling. 

It’s a telling of a life, of how Corrag came to be at Glencoe on that fateful night. Corrag says of herself that she is for places, not people, and her ability to notice tiny detail and to revel in the beauty of nature and all its inhabitants is lyrically told. She is a natural storyteller, an innately kind person, and one who is able to see the good in just about anyone. She focuses on those tiny details because sometimes the 'bigger picture' is just too awful to contemplate. Let's not forget, she is in prison awaiting execution for being a witch. Once we've settled into the tale, we almost forget that Corrag is talking out loud. The story flows, even when she pauses to describe someone or something, because she is a gifted storyteller with a curious mind and an observant eye. She (or should I say the author?) shows the Scottish countryside with vivid clarity and we feel every footstep, hear every snow-melt, notice every smell. Corrag talks of having cobwebs and cow slobber in her hair and the picture comes alive. 

She does take a long time to come to the point of her story and to some this might be frustrating, but part of her strategy must surely be to fill the awful hours of waiting. When the snows melt this year, she will be executed. Naturally, she wishes to talk, to remember. And her story is not just about the massacre, but what brought her to the glen in the first place. It is as well to bear this in mind when reading, since this is very much Corrag’s story, rather than the story of what happened at Glencoe. In fact, it’s fair to say that not much happens; not obviously, anyway. The true drama is in the play between Corrag and Leslie, as she slowly, without trying, changes his mind and gives him cause to reassess his own life and beliefs. The character development and the plunging of the reader into the world of the Scottish Highlands are what gives this book its strength. It may be that it’s the sort of  book one admires for the writing, rather than for the pace of the story itself. The author has a knack of concentrating on the minutiae in a way that makes the rest of the picture come sharply into focus. It's the sort of read from which you emerge, having been fully immersed in the setting.

I had one last niggle though: this book is available under three, yes, three, different titles. It has been released, and is still available, under the titles Corrag, Witch Light, and The Highland Witch. I believe one of these is the US rather than the UK title, but even so, why a third title? 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds

© Annie Whitehead

paperback reviewed

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1 comment:

  1. Angela MacRae Shanks28 March 2020 at 20:43

    This is one of my all-time favourite books. The writing is lyrical and poetic, yet essentially simple. It drew me in and held me bewitched until the end. Corrag's life was hard and at times brutal, but her fascination with every detail of the natural world was enchanting. By the end, I so wanted her to escape her ghastly fate, I had to keep reading into the wee hours. I urge everyone to read this novel, it will not leave you unchanged, I promise.


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