The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

physick bookAt the moment I’m reading fiction set in the C19th, but I’m also generally reading historical fiction (particularly books set partly in the present/partly in the past) for research reasons. This one I read as part of a wonderful MOOC I’m doing on historical fiction through the University of Virginia. Any other recommendations are welcome.

Connie is looking for a unique primary source on which to base her PhD research when she is given the task of cleaning out her grandmother’s house. She comes across the name ‘Deliverance Dane’, written on a note curled up in a key in an old bible, and this sets her on paths of historical and personal discovery.

The book is set mainly in the 1990s, in Connie’s time, but also reveals the story of Deliverance Dane, at the time of the Salem witch trials, and tracks the reverberations of accusations of witchcraft through successive generations. The author is concerned with the idea of how real magic was to people in New England, and explores this in a fantastical sense by introducing the possibility of magic in the present.

This is a fun book, in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (though not as layered as that book). Issues of gender (in relation to the accusation of women as witches) are raised, but never given much depth, as the novel also becomes a typical love story. It’s a page-turner, but the plot developments are often predictable, and while the historical detail is fascinating, it is often inserted into the story rather clumsily. The book is also quite plainly written.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and I’d recommend it as a light (but not too light) read. I’m finding more and more that I enjoy the combination of a female protagonist, historical detail, and a hint of magic. A more successful book containing these elements, in my opinion, is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens.

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