A Hint of Witchcraft
You can almost hear the ominous music start up as you read the first paragraphs of A Hint of Witchcraft – da da dum! Bad things are going to happen and there’s nothing you, or the characters, can do to stop them. And now that you’re imagining that music, listen for the narrator’s voice.
The book opens in the small village of Ashlaw, England, after WWI. The lives of the inhabitants are about to change with the arrival of Linden Grey. Linden’s presence will have the greatest impact on the young woman who first befriends her, Margot Humbert. If only Margot could hear that music, things might turn out differently for her and her family.
The set-up is not unusual for stories with a gothic bent. What makes A Hint of Witchcraft stand out is the writing. Anna Gilbert takes the reader carefully through the small actions (and non-actions) that set in motion larger events. After a certain point, tragedy seems inescapable. Evil is represented in the small impersonal acts of malice done by the self-centered young woman, Linden.
Linden and her mother, who was widowed and impoverished during the war, have moved to Ashlaw and are intent on making the proper connections. Linden, in particular, is without conscience in her quest to find someone who can take care of her. To serve her purposes, Linden cultivates a friendship with Margot. Margot is at first fascinated by her new friend, but later begins to worry about Linden’s impact on the Humbert family. Linden has set her sights on Alex, Margot’s older brother, and her attention is changing Alex in ways that Margot hasn’t even begun to realize.
Linden’s influence is not limited to the Humbert family. When one of the villagers is killed in an accident, Margot knows that Linden is involved in some way but she doesn’t realize how until it’s too late. And when that accident sets in motion a string of events that will forever change Margot and her family, she’s helpless to stop it. By the time Linden is gone from the scene, nothing is the same.
This book had me for the first half. The suspense was building and I couldn’t wait to see how things played out. But then the pace slowed down, and Linden just disappeared from the pages. There was no great climax. No confrontation. No real resolution. Linden just faded away from the story. She had a major impact on Margot, but she became almost the least important part of the book by the end. Ms. Gilbert’s book was a character study of people dealing with the aftermath, both on a personal and a societal level. The people of Ashlaw haven’t even recovered from the losses of WWI when Linden moves in and wreaks havoc. Even though this may be so, the latter third of the book falls flat as a character study, and as a gothic tale.
By the end of the book we’re spending a lot of time in Margot’s head. She’s realizing just what Linden has and hasn’t done. But she doesn’t really respond to any of that. Linden has caused the end of the major romance in Margot’s life, with devastating consequences, but this barely impinges on Margot’s thinking. She’s still caught up in an earlier mystery. That mystery did cause every other tragic event that followed, but I didn’t believe it would occupy Margot’s thinking to the exclusion of all else. And the only satisfaction the reader gets is that Margot figures things out, since Linden has ceased to be a character by this point. Despite Linden’s early omnipresence, the book is really about Margot. But even so, the pacing is off and the suspense is lost too soon. And it’s hard to forgive the fact that the author has Margot deeply in love with one man through most of the book, then, in the space of a few pages, has her realize she loves another.
A Hint of Witchcraft does do well at evoking the time period with every page. Anna Gilbert shines as a writer when she makes us feel the claustrophobia of small-village life, where one small change in the status quo can have devastating effects. I felt like I was in Ashlaw, knowing that something was wrong, but unable to do anything about it. In that Ms. Gilbert was very successful. If you are a real gothic fan, you may want to check this out for the creepy mood. But be forewarned that the pacing and the storyline, which started with such promise, become a problem in the second half.