There’s a lot to be said for a book that lets the reader know – from the outset – that its major character ends up dead, hung as a witch.
That’s how Malefice begins: with Alice Slade dead at 50, her body washed by one of her neglected daughters. But the journey of how we get to this post-rope cleansing is a little more involved.
Set in 1655, in the heat of the English Civil War, the novel combines a number of viewpoints to try and explain how central the accused witch is to the people in her village. More importantly, we’re made aware of the fact that Slade’s increasing strangeness was caused by the village itself: the gathering of souls required someone to play a particular role, and the woman embraced it fully, armed with the secrets residents would tell her willingly. Slade is accused of creating death spells and more, but her punishment is more due to what she knows.
There’s a lot of political back-and-forth, albeit indirect, in the novel. We hear from judges and priests, trying to curry favour with both the witch and pro-Cromwell forces. The wider trials of the country reach into rural life, though they’re presented as somehow lesser to the usual small-town vicissitudes.
A couple of weeks ago, I reread John Fowles’ A Maggot which definitely could be shelved alongside Wilson’s work. Both texts rely on records (and unreliable recollection) to place the reader in a position where not only is information drip-fed to the reader, but each addition adds a further kink to the story.
The story of persecution of wise women or cunning folk as witches or necromancers is one that’s difficult to tell. There’s a risk that the persecutors are presented solely as bastards, and the victims saints. History – even adapted – can tend towards bone-dry rather than interesting, and personal testament can come across as too twee. Thankfully, Wilson’s writing manages to create a troublingly multi-faceted portrait – something that can’t be locked into stereotypes easily.
What we have, instead, is a portrait of human weakness; something which can be used in the course of increasing power, but something from which nobody is immune.