Book review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

WINTERSON’S latest foray into historical fiction begins on Good Friday 1612 as 13 people gather on the Pendle Hill in largely Catholic Lancashire.

The Daylight Gate

Jeanette Winterson

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Hammer, £9.99

This is the start of the August Assizes, the first witch trials to be documented by lawyer Thomas Potts in his treatise The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire.

King James VI and I was ­already deeply suspicious of his Catholic subjects – some of whom had, after all, tried to blow him up in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. He was even more suspicious of witchcraft, having personally led witchhunts in Scotland in 1590.

The Daylight Gate follows these trials, twisting fiction around historical fact like a noose. Influenced by the King’s fears and Potts’s fanaticism, the men of Pendle, led by the paedophilic Tom Peeper, launch a campaign against those practising the dark arts.

Alice Nutter is one of the 13 gathered on Pendle Hill; affluent and youthful, she seems a world apart from the stinking, impoverished people around her. When magistrate Roger Nowell interrupts the company, he can’t help but notice ­Alice’s beauty and her determination to defend them. As the rest of the group are imprisoned, Alice tries to find out the truth about their powers and her own knowledge of magic.

Part history, part legend, part fairy tale, Winterson’s writing is vivacious and energetic. Rape, paedophilia, castration, torture and murder appear as frequently as insinuations of witchcraft.

But there is more to The Daylight Gate than suspicion and injustice; in Alice, Winterson has crafted a protagonist who is heroic and admirable but uncertain of her own destiny, a character who explores the emotional alchemy of ­female relationships.

The Daylight Gate is a fast-paced, vivid novella that is every bit as dark, dangerous and sexually charged as one might expect from a storyteller of Winterson’s calibre.

• Edinburgh International Book Festival, tomorrow