Bigotry, Bardic busking and revolution

15th September 2000 at 01:00
WITCH CHILD. By Celia Rees. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;10.99. SHYLOCK'S DAUGHTER. By Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Brian Murdoch. Macmillan pound;9.99. NATASHA'S WILL. By Joan Lingard. Puffin pound;4.99. SILKSCREEN.By Caroline Pitcher. Mammoth pound;4.99

In the spring of 1659 Mary's grandmother is hanged as a witch and the girl is rescued by a veiled lady who owes a mysterious debt to the old woman. "I was looking into the eyes of my mother and I knew that I would never see her again."

The scene looks set for a rip-snorting historical romance but Celia Rees's novel develops into something far richer: a tense, vivid account of life in early Colonial New England where opportunities for harmony and peaceful prosperity are squandered by self-righteous bigotry.

Witch Child, in the form of leaves from a diary supposedly sewn into a quilt, tells how Mary is sent to the safety of the New World aboard a ship full of emigrating Puritans in search of the religious freedom denied them in England. But along the way, Mary encounters the same rancid prejudice that she had sought to escape; her intelligence and independence attract the same superstition as before. At the story's end, we find her on the run once more, ready to take her chances with some friendly Native Americans.

Shylock's Daughter is a brave attempt to distil an historical truth from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, although efforts to flesh out the play's characters only highlight the confident economy of the Bard's thumbnail sketches, while the introduction of new ones clutters the action to the point where it is impossible to remember who everyone is. But it rarely matters all that much: they are mostly there for the purposes of instruction rather than plot development, and translator Brian Murdoch's Afterword leaves the reader with a distinct information overload. Near the end a poignant glimpse ofJessica, no longer a Jew, not really a Christian, pregnant by the cynical young buck who has married her for her father's money, gives an idea of the leaner, fitter novel that could have shown us so much more by telling us so much less.

Joan Lingard's Natasha's Will is a novel in two alternating halves: a contemporary treasure hunt set in Scotland and the account of a flight from Petrograd during the Bolshevik Revolution, which has set the current events in train. Natasha, an elderly Russian eccentric, had promised to leave her house to the family that shared it with her, but evidently died intestate. When her only relative turns up to claim his inheritance with a view to selling it, he inadvertently causes a near-tragedy and sets off a frantic search for the will to which Natasha has left various clues scattered about the house. The tales never mesh satisfactorily and the mystery is solved in a dream, which is cheating, but the historical episodes give useful insight into the kinds of people who lose their individual identity when they arrive in a foreign country as asylum-seekers.

Silkscreen by Caroline Pitcher has a wildly improbable plot. After her mother's death, Rachel is sent on holiday to a reconstructed cotton mill where visitors dress in period costume and re-enact the experience of 19th-century child labour. Rachel soon discovers that two of the child labourers are for real and that the deranged mill-owner has adopted them for his own abusive purposes.

I did not believe a word of this, as the overall tone is of low realism rather than High Gothic. But Pitcher can write. She has a sensuous eye for detail in textiles, colours, scents, flavours. Characters are deftly drawn - such as the manageress of a Thai restaurant who is "elegant and shiny and slim as a spring onion". With prose this tasty much can be forgiven.

Jan Mark

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