Some people cannot have a peopled life. We try for it. We go to markets, and say hello. We help to bring the hay in, and pick the cider apples from their bee-noisy trees, but it takes very little—a hare, or a strange moon—for hag to come. Whore. They raise an eyebrow, then. They call for ropes to bind us, so that we grow so sad and afraid for our small lives that we turn to empty places—and that makes them call hag even more. She lives on her own. Walks in shadows, I hear … But where else is safe?
These are the words of Corrag, a suspected witch imprisoned and awaiting execution for interfering with the Glencoe Massacre, in which the MacDonald clan was killed for their delay in pledging allegiance to King William III. Corrag tells her story to Charles Leslie, a minister from Ireland with sympathies for the exiled King James. Leslie has come to the Scottish Highlands to search for evidence that William himself ordered the massacre, and the trail quickly leads him to this strange woman who tells him the story not just of the massacre, but of her whole life in Corrag, the new novel by Susan Fletcher.
Most of the book is made up of Corrag’s life story, with letters from Leslie to his wife inserted between the chapters. Corrag has always lived on the fringes of society. Her grandmother and mother were both condemned as witches, and Corrag has escaped their fate by fleeing, on her mother’s command, from their home in England to the north and west, where people are less suspicious. She tells Leslie of her four lives: her early life with her mother, her life on the road to the Highlands, her life in the Highlands, and her life in prison. As he listens, Leslie moves from a position of condemnation to one of compassion, as revealed in his letters to his wife.
The basic story of a woman condemned for being different is nothing new, nor is the story of someone’s eyes being opened by listening to a different voice. But Fletcher’s writing lifts this book to something more than the pedestrian tale of a woman ahead of her time fighting ignorance. For one thing, the characters themselves are well drawn and develop in believable ways. Corrag is a bit too perfect and knowing perhaps, but as we read her life story, we get to see her grow into her wisdom. It’s not just something that comes from being female and earthy. She learns—and sometimes unlearns—from life and from her encounters with others. Even better is seeing Leslie grow in his understanding in a way that doesn’t mean throwing off all his old ideals. And Fletcher reveals his growth in what amounts to a very small amount of text—just a few letters of no more than three pages each.
I also liked the way the story unfolded. Even though I knew the gist of what was going to happen—when the novel opens, the massacre is over—I still felt some suspense as I wondered how it would turn out for the individuals Corrag knew and what her place would be in the events. And there were even a few surprises in that the story didn’t always go quite in the direction that I expected.
Fletcher’s use of language is also impressive. She gives each character a clear and distinctive voice. Leslie writes in a clear and straightforward style, but Corrag speaks in a poetic and meandering style. The flowery language Corrag uses is quite well-done. A lot of fiction that aspires to be literary uses metaphor and imagery that sounds pretty but falls apart if you think about it at all, but Fletcher does not employ such clunky language. Some readers might not care for Fletcher’s poetic style, but it worked for me because it suited the characters.
Although I generally admired Fletcher’s use of language, I do think this book would be much stronger if she had held back at times. Corrag has a tendency to repeat certain phrases and return to certain images again and again. This did seem true to character, but it made for tedious reading at times. Judicious trimming of the constant reminders that her mother warned her against love or that she desired to save lives would have been an improvement, I think. The imagery she uses is so evocative that it doesn’t need to be repeated quite so much to make an impact.
This is Fletcher’s third novel. Her first, Eve Green, won the Whitbread first novel reward, and I believe her second, Oystercatchers, is highly regarded as well. If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear what you thought. Corrag has just been released in the U.K. and will not be available in the U.S. until November. It is, however, available through The Book Depository for U.S. readers who just can’t wait.