I do like to be confused by a book sometimes, and this certainly left me baffled and unsettled, unsure what to make of it.
I read it in one sitting because the story it tells of witchcraft in Pendle in Lancashire in the early 17th Century is a gripping one and Winterson is a brilliant story-teller. Her language is visceral and brutal, uncomfortably so in some places.
Its contradictions are confusing. Published by Hammer, it sometimes feels like a Hammer horror film: all billowing capes, gothic devilry and general nastiness.
It repeatedly makes the point that witchcraft is a fabrication, developed by an oppressive society to keep its lower classes in fear and poverty. It’s said about
‘self-confessed witches’ that
Such women are poor. They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs.
But at other times the Devil appears, a skull talks and witchcraft is presented as real. It’s also not clear whether or not the central figure of the wealthy landowner, Alice Nutter, who repeatedly denies being a witch, actually is one or is pretending. There’s a hallucinatory quality to all of it despite the sharp brutality of some of the details which makes it difficult to grasp and a powerful, confusing experience.
There’s nothing for it: I’ll have to read it again.