Sometimes, rarely, you read a book where the first person narrator seems to be really talking to you. This was the case with Witch Light. At first, this was an uncomfortable meeting. The main character Corrag is the narrator. She has a monotonous voice, that can seem nonsensical at times, but all becomes clearer as you read on. I foundvery yself deliberately disregarding the letters from the man she tells her story to, as they do seem too much of an imposed violation on her tale. The author Susan Fletcher admits in an interview at the back of the novel, that she added him as only Corrag’s point of view provided, ‘no respite for the reader from her strange voice’. He also brings the reader squarely into the time period, with his tone, an earnest and passionate account of his feelings. His letters would not seem out of place in Dracula. They carry the same kind of foreboding and the sheer weight of his task. The juxtaposition of the two distinct voices does serve the purpose of some kind of balance, if still prejudiced, on both sides.
But a few words on the story. Corrag is based on a real-life person, as are the events at the climax of the novel and Charles Leslie, the Jacobite who unveils the truth in the King’s part in the events. The novel is set in Scotland, shortly after King James II fled to France, leaving William of Orange to take his throne. It left two warring factions, the Jacobites who supported James, and those who were loyal to their new King. This is the historical context that the troubled Corrag is caught in, as well as fear of fear itself.
In a time of suspicion and prejudice, Corrag has little chance of ever being accepted in society. She’s part of a female blood line, which are thought strange: too knowledgeable in the use of plants for healing and un-Godly. The word ‘witch’ is never far from the lips of those she meets. She insists on telling the rich man, who comes to hear her eye witness account of the massacre, her whole life story, as then it will live on in him. She is to be burned at the stake for her witchcraft. Charles, a typical God-fearing husband, sees what they see. A child-like, dirty creature who talks wildly and of things he cannot understand.
Fletcher has created in Corrag a character that is both compelling and disturbing in equal measure, as she has a spell-binding way with words, whilst describing the beauty of the Highlands and finding the magic of the natural world seen through her solitude.
The backdrop of the killings is lost behind the tragedy of all the women who were really persecuted for being themselves; be they single, confident, overtly sexual, accomplished or linked to an event that could be seen as an omen or an evil act. Any woman could be accused, which equated to a death sentence. The sad reality of all the women killed as witches haunts the voice of Corrag and makes it stronger. She is caring, sensible, careful and brave. She is also odd, manic and unknown. She inhabits all the mantels of ‘woman’ that she carries, but never riles at the injustice of the life that she has been given. She only wishes that she could remember it, savour the best parts and perhaps enjoy life for longer.
The novel is a journey of her finding a place, emotionally and physically, where she belongs. She cares nothing of kings and abhors violence. Strange then, that she is accepted by the savage MacDonalds, after travelling from the South. She is dubbed ‘English’ but never with hate. They recognise her value, through her difference, and see her intention rather than what they impose upon her.
She could be considered bewitching. She wins round the clan and even her interviewer. As such, despite the despicable nature of the massacre, the one person whom one really cares about is Corrag and the unjust end that lies in wait for her after she recounts that fateful day. Once this is told it is all over.
There is light in the dark. Corrag falls in love, knows true friendship and is able to live with herself, as she tried to save them. To know things, to have second-sight, was a sure sign of having links to the devil, but to not use it would be an even greater sin. Folklore also has its place in the story, through the frightening, classic figure of the witch with second sight. Corrag seems normal in comparison.
Other plus-points, include the breathtaking setting, which is nearly a character in its own right, and its wildlife, its offspring. The construction of the phrasing to describe the hills, sheer cliffs and living ranges are intoxicating, imaginatively described and realistic. It made me want to go so that I could stand at the edge, in the throes of the wind, listening to the highlands. That is how Corrag feels all the time, to be that close to nature. Then comes the call to release the inner witch.
This begs the question: is it a woman’s novel? There are more than a few strong, masculine characters present; most are soldiers, or warriors, but nearly all feared, and rightly so. As the narrator is so powerful, feminine and fragile, it could well be considered a woman’s novel. This does mean to say that it would not offer a male reader anything, at least perhaps a window into the mind of women. It is easy to be drawn into the story; it’s well paced and engaging. The characters, especially Corrag are easy to identify with: who hasn’t felt strange, unwelcome and unloved at some point in their lives? Witch Light is a novel that whispers to you: ‘dare to be who you are’.