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“The North is the dark place. It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the dead. The North of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.” So begins Jeanette Winterson’s new novel, The Daylight Gate. It’s fitting to begin in the landscape—Lancashire, and Pendle Hill, wild and shrouded in fog, play as large a role as any character in this bewitching book. And it is in Lancashire, in the Pendle Forest, that a traveling pedlar has a run-in with two women and their familiars, arriving in the pub an hour later, raving and half-mad. This event leads to the imprisonment of these two women, and the subsequent inquiry on their coven. And so it is on Pendle Hill, in Malkin Tower, property of the beautiful, wealthy Alice Nutter, on Good Friday, 1612, that a group of thirteen people are interrupted by the town magistrate—and accused of witchery.
This is seventeenth-century England. To be a witch or a Catholic are equal offenses, punishable by death. This is the start of the first-ever documented witch trial, from which The Daylight Gate takes its tale. This is a slim, seductive book of magic, religion, devotion, love, and power.
With spare, poetic prose, Winterson peels back layer after layer of story, revealing broken loyalties and unbreakable bonds, forging connections where you don’t expect them. Alice Nutter, the thread that ties the story and large cast of characters together, is a complex woman of courageous depth, though she never quite reveals the secrets of her charmed life. She is a fine, nuanced character, inspiring awe and sympathy despite her obvious affiliation with the darkest forces of this book. Her past haunts her, and in a way, her past haunts every character here. Winterson’s penchant for myth and magick is on full display in The Daylight Gate—it shines through her old-fashioned storytelling. The plot unfolds in a glorious, inevitable rush of events, exposing each of the characters, and binding them closer and closer together, as the noose tightens, collectively, around their necks.
The Daylight Gate carries the weight of a big, dense book—so much is crammed into its 200 pages. The descriptions of squalor and torture will make your skin crawl—consider this sentence describing the dungeon in Lancaster Castle: “A rat runs over her foot and drinks from the indent of her shoe.” There’s plenty more where that came from. And Winterson doesn’t shy away from displaying humanity’s darkest behaviors: the things we do for love and power; the things we do to satisfy hunger and greed. Yet, the darkness she writes is never gratuitous. Instead, the darkness is raw, evocative, harsh, archetypal—and terrifying.
The Daylight Gate is a show-stopper. A tour de force. It’s a dark dazzler, break-neck (literally, metaphorically), brutal and beautiful. Once you pick it up, you won’t put it down.
The Daylight Gate
By Jeanette Winterson
Hardcover, 9780802121639, 234 pp.