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I haven't read Winterson before, but loved the sound of this book, based on the Pendle witch trials of 1612. Winterson has a massive reputation in the UK for taking risks with her prose and for presenting an uncompromisingly feminist point of view - she's a cooler, sharper version of Angela Carter if you like - and the witch hysteria of the 17th century seemed perfectly tailored to her mix of surrealism and politics.
You can tell there's a 'but' coming, can't you?
It took me a while to decide that I was actually right to be disappointed with The Daylight Gate. There's a plot, there are recognisable characters, there are some scenes and ideas of arresting beauty and interest. Add it all together though, and the whole is much smaller than the sum of the parts. Winterson tells the story of a persecuted family living in the cold wet north of England. Accused of witchcraft, they are tortured and imprisoned. A local business woman, Alice Nutter, acts as their protector and become embroiled in the misfortune. William Shakespeare puts in an appearance. Winterson more or less sticks to the facts and it all ends up the way you would expect, if you know anything about the history of the witch trials, but she does colour her story by allowing Alice and the Demdike family some powers they could not have possessed in real life.
Where does the flaw lie? It's in the telling of the tale. Winterson is well known for being sparse with words, but this book is so underwritten I had trouble keeping track of the basics of who was where and why and with whom. I can do without florid descriptions, but I need enough to allow me to form an image in my mind. Winterson doesn't give me that and it's almost as though she doesn't care enough to bother. In a scene where a woman is horribly abused by two witchcatchers, the culmination consists of Winterson baldly telling us that 'she was raped'. I didn't want more detail (no thanks) but the effect was almost cursory, as if Winterson didn't feel the woman's suffering was important enough to describe. However rich the source material, a writer who treats it so coldly can't engage me.
Verdict: possibly a must for die-hard Winterson fans, but for the uninitiated, this is likely to be a disappointment