Cries of witchcraft greet any woman who dares threaten a cruel patriarchy in this richly drawn medieval world
Near the beginning of Kirsty Logan’s fine new novel, a travelling theatre company stages a nocturnal performance on a frozen lake. It’s winter and this play, which tracks a woman’s trajectory from maiden to mother to crone, is a small smudge of light in a grim surround of dark. It’s the perfect image – life atop icy precarity; festive warmth upon unforgiving cold – to set the stage for a tale whose protagonist will be confronted by many perilous contrasts.
Her name is Lux, and when we first meet her she is standing in a garden of poisonous herbs above the remains of her recently buried mother, who has been unjustly executed for witchcraft. In the harsh world of Now She Is Witch, which would seem to be some version of medieval Europe, most girls and women are possessions for men either to harm or play with. Any who assume agency are swiftly denounced and brutally dealt with: those labelled witches are tied to poles in the sea and left to slowly drown; others guilty of lesser offences (talking too much, too loudly or indeed at all) are paraded around in scold’s bridles, torture devices deployed to humiliate.
Lux, recently ejected from a religious sanctuary meant to put her right with God, chafes at the fate that would seem to await her as just “a girl, and small, and nothing more” in this cauldron of misogynistic madness. The arrival of a mysterious stranger named Else, just as a group of locals look set to attack Lux in her garden, starts the novel off with a bang.
Else wants Lux’s help in getting some good old-fashioned revenge and Lux, who has her mind fixed on travelling north to a land where freedom reigns and witches thrive, teams up with her. Neither of their goals will be easy to achieve. For Lux and Else trail the weighty plumes of traumatic pasts, which Logan skilfully offers us in passages of backstory that sing, screech and skip through the novel in the way records are marked by jagged scratches.
It’s little wonder that for a time Lux, who as the novel progresses becomes in turn an actor on a frozen stage, a servant in a hall of delicacies, a food-taster to a lord and companion to a fine lady, is tempted to turn her back on Else’s revenge and set her own dreams of finding freedom in the wild country aside. But things in Logan’s vision are almost always excruciatingly unlike how they seem, and Lux’s dreamy idyll is cut short when beauty reveals its awful underbelly.
Logan builds Lux’s world with an eye for striking detail. The leader of the theatre company, which haunts Lux throughout the story, “was as thin as a skeleton: if he lay on his side during rain, a tiny puddle would form in the hollow of his cheek”. A very different sort of man is “the size of a bull, and his smell was so strong it felt like fingers forced into her nostrils”. Whether Logan is describing a dismembered bear whose lopped-off parts are handed out as favours at a banquet, or a gory flagellant’s parade, the images we are offered snap and sizzle with portent and possibility. At one crucial moment, in an observation that might serve as an apt comment on the novel as a whole, the lady Lux has been serving says of stories: “Each person is stuffed full to bursting with them, fat as pigs ready for a feast. The littlest prick and all those stories will simply explode out, shrieking like fat in a fire, and anyone nearby can hear it all.”
In the many stories that fall shrieking from the pages of this brutal, bracing novel, we encounter maidens forced to become mothers and mothers, if they live long enough, punished as witches or scorned as crones. Lux’s fate, though, lies elsewhere, up north where “blue glaciers cast up glassy and gleaming on a shore of black sand”. There Lux takes stock and begins to grasp the power she has accrued over the course of her journey. It’s a moment of grace and vindication, one that Logan lets the long-suffering Lux experience utterly, triumphantly alone.
Source : The Guardian