Kit’s Crit: Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) is a classic example of magical realism, but it is also a satirical historical fiction.  The unreliable narrator – Saleem Sinai – is one of 1001 children born between midnight and 1.00am on August 15, 1947, which was the moment of India’s independence from Britain.  Although he is the bastard child of a beggar woman, a nurse switches him at birth with another boy called Shiva, so he grows up as the only son of a wealthy couple.  All of the children arriving in the same hour as the birth of the new nation are endowed with special powers – “transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry,” but Saleem has the most powerful gift of all.  He is telepathic and able to communicate with the other gifted youngsters across the country.  Saleem persuades them to form the MCC (Midnight Children’s Conference), but even with all their combined powers they end up being persecuted by the authorities.

Rushdie uses magical realism to construct a parallel history between the person (Saleem) and the state (India) in the fairy-tale style of the Arabian Nights.  The hero becomes entwined in a series of events that are not only fantastical, but are often scientifically dubious at best, and historically inaccurate at worst.  This creates confusion, uncertainty, and a shift in the reader’s reality that many critics have found disturbing.  Rushdie’s symbolism is also  heavy-handed.  There is little subtlety in his continual reference to snakes, ladders, noses, and knees.

The strength of Midnight’s Children lies in the central theme: What is reality?  Rushdie makes us question history, fact, truth, memory, and narrative.  Ultimately, truth depends “on perspective and belief.”  He decides that, “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”

Midnight’s Children is often compared with Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.  Both novels are mystical, philosophical, and enchanting – yet the German Classic has an additional lyrical element that I found more compelling.

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 (Photo: Kit Perriman)

Kit’s Crit: Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mary Sharratt)

Sarratt

It is impossible to know what really happened before and during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 when the only extant document is the blatantly biased trial record, written by a clerk called Thomas Potts to gain favor with King James 1st.  Mary Sharratt, however, makes an excellent attempt at fleshing out a plausible tale around the two central characters — a local cunning woman known as Mother Demdike (Bess Southerns), and her pretty teenage granddaughter (Alizon Device).  Sharratt’s cunning folk are Catholic herbalists and fortune-tellers, doing whatever they can to survive in remote, harsh Lancashire.

Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mariner Books, 2011) is more a historical fiction than a thriller.  It offers a sympathetic portrayal of marginalized females battling against the patriarchy.  Sharratt has a good grasp of the local superstitions, traditions, religious conflict, and public ignorance of the period, and the Demdike clan emerge as a group of strong women, bonded by circumstance and sustained with love.  Most interesting is Sharratt’s invented seventeenth-century Lancashire dialect: “I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon . . . .”

 As is necessary in any saga as complex as the Lancashire Witches, Sharratt takes some “fictional liberties” by combining several real people into one composite character, and changing some of the repetitive historical names for the sake of clarity.  She also suggests that Demdike taught another rival cunning woman her craft (Mother Chattox); that Mistress Alice Nutter was a secret practicing Catholic; and that Justice Roger Nowell derived some personal (perhaps sexual) satisfaction from his dealing with the so-called witches.  These are all credible assumptions.

Less likely, is her portrayal of Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device (known locally as “Squinting Lizzie”).  In Daughters of the Witching Hill Lizzie has no interest in her mother’s magic.  She appears as a chaste lonely widow who follows the new religion because she is infatuated with a Church Warden called Richard Baldwin.  He impregnates her with a third child, Jennet Device.  Yet while this provides a romantic interlude in the harrowing proceedings, I strongly suspect the Demdike home was called Malkin Tower because malkin meant “sluttish woman” (OED) and  Squinting Lizzie may well have been one of the local prostitutes!

Sharratt, however, has every right to fill in the gaps of this ambiguous story with her own interpretation, and her sympathetic version of events certainly makes an intriguing read.  A highly-recommended novel.

Kit’s Crit: The Wise Woman (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

This historical fiction begins in 1540 and follows the tragic life of seventeen-year-old Alys, a young peasant girl in Tudor England.  Alys grew up on the moor with a harsh foster-mother called Morach, the local wise woman.  But turning her back on superstition and the pagan arts, Alys decides to join a nunnery.  For a time she finds contentment in this orderly sanctuary.  She enjoys the rigid structure, comparative luxury, and the safety afforded to the Holy Sisters.

But Alys happiness is short lived.  One night the monastery burns to the ground, a casualty of King Henry’s Reformation, and the young woman is summoned to the local castle to work as a scribe for the ailing lord of the manor.   Here she falls in love with his married son and heir, Lord Hugo.  She grows intently jealous of the Lady Catherine, and seeks to replace her in Hugo’s bed.  Calling on all the cunning tricks she recalls from living with Morach, Alys devises a difficult, disturbing plot to gain her heart’s desire.  At this point the novel slips into magical realism.

Gregory’s story has many Faustian overtones.  Alys conjures up the powers of darkness to possess the man she fixates on, aware that her actions are prompted by self-promotion rather than genuine love.  By the end of the book the Wise Woman is exposed as self-centered, unlikable, and evil – and therefore she meets with a hellish end.

The Wise Woman can also be read as a morality tale.  Although Alys is a victim of historical circumstance, feudalism, and gender, she serves as a warning against forbidden love and obsession.  She tries to take the rightful place of another woman – a place where she can never truly belong.  Alys discovers she has the power to unleash terrible things on the world, but by the time she realizes she has little control over them, it is too late to go back.  She sinks further and further into witchcraft.

I enjoyed the atmospheric setting of Gregory’s novel, and not expecting to sympathize with the central characters I was pleased to find them portrayed in a refreshingly honest way – warts and all!  The historical research is sound and convincing, and any book set in the medieval era must acknowledge the common superstitious beliefs of that time.

This is not a feel-good story.  It suggests everything in Alys’ world is a sham – magic, life, love, faith, and family.  But one of the great joys of reading is the ability to close the book at any point and find yourself back in the twenty-first century!