An overwrought debut revisits the Salem Witch trials.
In 1691, our first narrator, 15-year-old Charity Fowler, watches her mother Judith die giving birth to another daughter. Charity’s father Lucas, a stern and pious carpenter, has gone to the harbor to fetch her aunt Susannah Morrow, who has sailed from England to see her sister Judith. The two arrive in time to see the birth, but a distraught Charity—her behavior is the most contrived in a story where characters too obviously reflect its themes of sexual repression, rampant religiosity, and the old Hawthorne-esque fear of evil spirits lurking in the dark forest—suddenly turns against Susannah. Charity, who was seduced by the unsuitable young Sam, whom her mother Judith paid to leave the village, now, for obvious plot purposes, overcome by deep sexual and religious guilt, is suddenly convinced that Susannah is an instrument of the Devil. She’s also desperate for her father’s attention—he offers her biblical texts rather than hugs—and has befriended a bad lot of girls, some based on the real-life accusers in the trials, who dabble in fortunetelling, spells, and other mischief. As Charity becomes more obsessed with the notion of Susannah’s inherent evil, Lucas takes up the story. He recounts his worries about Charity, his growing sexual attraction to Susannah, and the burgeoning hysteria in the village as more and more young girls begin behaving as if possessed. Accusations of witchcraft lead to Susannah’s imprisonment. A forgiving and insightful woman, she has never married but has had three lovers, acted on the London stage, and is beautiful, not helping her case in repressed Salem. Lucas is also jailed as the panicked citizenry begin implicating the most unlikely people. Eventually, sanity returns, but not soon enough for some of the women of Salem.
Melodrama on the loose: neither entertaining nor persuasive.