Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

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This supernatural historical thriller is set in 1991, with flashbacks to the era of the notorious Salem witch trials. Don’t worry, though. You will not have to endure the whole harrowing business all over again – Howe has managed to put an interesting spin on this much-visited subject.

While clearing out her grandmother’s cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. So begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name; a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance’s spell book The Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.  What secrets does The Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer the questions – and reveal the truth abuot Salem’s condemned women – before an ancient family curse fulfils its dark and devastating prophesy…

deliverancedaneThis story does have its creepy moments, but it is far more bound up in the everyday with the oddness and discordant details sneaking in when you’re not necessarily paying attention. I really like the way that while in Connie’s viewpoint, we gradually become aware that things are not exactly normal. So when we are confronted with the more gruesome details – they really provide full shock value.

One of the recurring themes in this enjoyable story, is the relationship between mother and daughter – and how circumstance and genes can conspire to create friction between the generations. Connie and her hippie mother, Grace, certainly have been at odds throughout Connie’s life. I found the telephone conversations between mother and daughter one of the book’s highlights, both managing to be poignant and amusing at the same time.

In setting the book in 1991, Howe has been smart. This is before the computerisation of records had really got going and mobile phones are not widely used. So as a historical researcher, she spends hours combing through the primary source materials in cotton gloves and when alone in her grandmother’s derelict cottage, she is truly marooned in a way that these days with wireless internet and mobile phones would be almost impossible.

Howe’s connection to this story is more than just keen interest – she is related to two of the victims of the Salem witch trials, one survived and one didn’t. In these sceptical times, the accepted version for the Salem witch trials is that the whole sorry business was as a result of an overly repressive regime, raging teenage hormones and an hysterical reaction to both the power and the attention. But, what if there really was an element of magic clouding the whole issue? The contemporary accounts certainly absolutely believed that witchcraft was in evidence. And this is the premise that Howe uses as the foundation and starting point for her tale, providing her with an enjoyably original and yet plausible version of the Salem trials.

This is book, while not necessarily found parked alongside the other Fantasy offerings on the bookshelves, offers a delightful slice of supernatural happenings from a refreshingly original angle by an accomplished writer. If you are feeling a tad jaded with the genre right now, I suggest you look this book out. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10

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