FINALLY, review of The Afflicted Girls

My baby is now ten months old, and we are all fighting illnesses daily, courtesy of daycare germs, BUT this has given me the time to read and write! So, after being out of touch for so long, I am proud to be able to present my first review, post-birth : ) Enjoy!

The Afflicted Girls by Suzy Witten. Dreamwand, 2009, $18.95, paperback, 978-0615323138, 456 pp. Kindle edition, $4.99.

Suzy Witten transports readers back to 17th-century Salem in her dark, atmospheric, and disturbing recounting of the infamous witch trials. This rendering, which includes a touch of the mystical and ethereal within this dark place, poignantly begins with the chilling image:

“John Indian, the parsonage manslave, was hacking at the frozen ground in the meetinghouse graveyard.”

Why would someone be doing this, my mind wondered. The slave is digging an infant-sized grave during the funeral of the youngest Putnam male, which is going on inside the church. He describes the screams of the mother, the reaction of the father to his wife’s hysteria, the pompous, condescending attitude of the reverend…setting the scene for this sad tale.

The arrival of two orphans, Abigail Williams and Mercy Lewis, shortly afterward, marks the beginning of the evil-doings that lead to the eventual witch-hunts. Abigail, the niece of Rev Parris—the greedy and corrupt, yet conflicted Puritan leader of the small town—is herself no angel, being power-hungry and manipulative like her uncle, and has arrived to live with her newly found family. Mercy, a humble orphan of few means but many skills, is forced into indentured servitude in the Putnam household.

The story leading up to the arrests and trials themselves is peopled by a large and complex cast of characters, with the overwhelming majority being difficult to sympathize with in any way—miserable creatures, most of them, with the exception of Mercy and Lucy Putnam. The plot also distills the essence of village relationships, which eventually underlie the hysteria of the trials, with its rivalries, history, and petty politicking.

The Afflicted Girls is written in a sophisticated, literary style that expresses the corruption, hopelessness, and despair pervading the story. Frequent changes in character points of view, which can be problematic in a work of fiction, are seamless here, avoiding a focus on just one or two main characters. Normally, I would have disliked this technique, but in this instance, one does not want to become too emotionally engaged with such abhorrent creatures or too attached to those who suffer miserable fates. I think the level of attachment/detachment is just right: we are drawn in but not overwhelmed. We are challenged enough by this story to be led to consider human weaknesses and their effects on others, such as lust, corruption, interpretation of religion, and greed, and to want to ponder human nature and how it can be swayed so easily toward these things.

A small amount of the mystical is woven into the story, almost attempting to illustrate that “white magic” or “witchcraft” (intuition and visions, for example) can be positive, not negative (or “of Satan”), as the reverend turned these traits around to be. The author also introduces a theory that the “afflicted girls” were not possessed by witchcraft or anything supernatural, but rather were under the influence of an hallucinogen—a natural substance baked into cakes that the parsonage’s female servant (with the assumption that she brought this knowledge with her from her native land) used for her own private ceremonies. In this book, Abigail recklessly (and fatally) attempted to replicate this recipe—a claim that is well expressed and defended throughout the story, as the use of herbs for visions has long been practiced by many cultures, but in this instance, was turned into evil, devil-worshipping fare by petty minds.

I have read other reviewers’ complaints about the extraneous use of violent sexual descriptions, and I have to disagree, for the most part. Some of the most potent are these of graphic rapes, indeed; however, they illustrate the characters’ despair, add to the plot, and increase character development. Yes, there is much graphic violence in the book; however, these descriptions illustrate the hypocrisy that was seemingly rampant in this Puritan society. These “sins” of greed, lust, and scandal were the basis of people’s motivations and some of the evidence used to convict Salem’s “witches.”

The book is not perfect, however. I would have preferred a tighter set-up for the story; it is clear that the story was intended as a screenplay originally, because the first one hundred or so pages are scene-setting descriptions of both people and places, without much action. I think readers would have found this book easier to get into had the beginning been more tightly woven. Patience is necessary to get to the meat of the novel, but it is absolutely worth the effort.

Secondly, a descriptive character list in the front matter would have been helpful as well. For a novice on the subject of the Salem trials, such as myself, attempting to keep up with the complex list of characters impeded the reading flow.

And thirdly—and this is a nitpicky detail of a manuscript editor who reads day in and day out—I noticed an overuse of dependent clauses (sentences starting with the subordinating conjunctions “because” or “since”), posing as independent sentences, which was jarring. Used judiciously, this technique can enhance a work, but when overused, it becomes a distraction. There are a number of typos, as well. The book (both print and e-book editions) could use a thorough copyedit.

Overall, these are minor quibbles. One of the highest praises I can give a book is when I continue pondering it long after I’ve closed the cover (or turned off the Kindle!), and the atmosphere and issues from this novel have been rattling around my mind ever since I finished The Afflicted Girls.

Disclaimer: The reviewer is acquainted with the author but has not allowed that relationship to interfere with writing a fair and balanced review.

Next review plus, sigh, the Kindle.

My posts may be few and far between at the moment, but I am attempting to read a novel for the first time since my little girl was born. I have wanted to read The Afflicted Girls by Suzy Witten for some time and I have finally broken down and purchased a Kindle and the e-book; now I can sneak in a few pages at night. I have finally given it a chance–here’s what I wrote about it during my first week of ownership…

“I refused to go near this nefarious device until last month. Now, I am eating my words, just a little bit (and eating a lot of humble pie!). I actually like it. I don’t believe it will ever take the place of paper books because it is, above all, a device, and as handy as it can be, it does not offer the same tactile pleasure (nor can your favorite author sign their electrons…yet) as paper. It smells like electronics, a plus if you are of the fresh-off-the-press-gadget-sniffing crowd (you know, people who love new car smell!), but personally, I prefer the real thing. The Kindle is convenient, definitely. I can see taking this on the plane or a long car ride, the Metro or a long Amtrak trip, and being able to catch up on new books. I definitely love it when my baby is sleeping on my lap or late at night when I can’t sleep. Something that surprised me about the Kindle (and other e-reading devices) is that I suspect it may be helping increase the reading rate in our country–consider this: most of the free e-books are “classics” whose copyright has expired. People love freebies, and they love filling their e-readers with content. Do I sense a resurgence of readers enjoying classic literature? That’s my hope at least!

The Kindle is pleasing to look at, doesn’t hurt my eyes the way a back-lit screen would, and I do appreciate the screen savers–very artsy! I wish there were a larger variety of them, though. The Kindle store is too easy to blow way too much money on…and the magazine and newspaper subscriptions are appealing.  It also allows one to view PDF files, which is helpful when it comes to reviewing for the HNS, and, although tedious, it does boast the ability to highlight and makes notes in the text.

Bottom line: it never will be a replacement for my treasured book collection, but I am impressed by the convenience and the ease of reading while using the device.

I guess I’ll go have the rest of my humble pie for lunch now…

Upcoming reviews

Now that I’ve finished one of the novels on my immediate-read list, this is what is coming up next:

Gillian Badshaw’s Hawk of May

Suzy Witten’s The Afflicted Girls

And then I will start on the collection I brought home from BEA.

All guarded over by my ever-faithful and sleepy Siamese:

Until I am ready to review my latest reads, I will continue to post selections from my reading journal. I hope you are enjoying what you read here, and feel free to leave comments.