With university starting back in two weeks for me, I've managed to get to some of the unread books on my list. My reading material has doubled for this year due to the extra literature units I am required to take to finish off my course. Normally something like The Daylight Gate would not quite be on my 'must read' list but I am certainly glad I was forced to take the time to read it.
The beginning of the book starts out very strongly. So strongly that I was tempted to give it a four star rating had it continued in such a pattern. Yet by the end of the book I came to loathe the resolution and recognise that the entire book was making me sick. I feel that Jeanette Winterson did something in the end of the book which was emotionally or historically (I cannot quite decide) dishonest and I'm going to aim to explain why I feel this way.
I enjoyed her semi-autobiographical story Oranges are Not the Only Fruit as much as the entire subject matter enabled me to (not that this is a book which shows off the negatives of when people misunderstand Christianity). Winterson has a talent for description and for adding humour and unique characters to her work. So Winterson's writing here is no problem for me despite it being remarkably minimalist and stark in how it addresses the tale.
Let me begin with why the beginning of the tale appealed to me. It begun as a story about the tragedy of history - when men and women abused ideology and fear to convince one another that certain individuals were witches. The Crucible (one of my favourite plays) has a very good spin on this whole concept. I quite appreciated (gruesome though it was) the idea that Winterson showed of how a particularly dislikeable group of men used the concept of a woman being a witch as an excuse to abuse and humiliate her.
At one point in the tale there is a line that points out the contradiction in how one man can be a rapist on a Saturday night and sit in Church the following morning, with no penalty from the law. Yet if that man claims a woman is a witch he will be listened to and she will be thrown in jail. In other words, Winterson shows how the world in the past (and still sadly, in many ways, now) was a world dominated by the inequality of law in regards to how men and women were treated.
The issue is not that Winterson addresses such concepts. These concepts are why I gave the book two stars for. They are brilliantly realised - if honestly and starkly. The issue is that the women who Winterson sets up to be shown as the 'unfairly claimed' witches are later shown to possess actual 'magick' or have some kind of dishonest past in which they dabbled with 'magick'. In other words, the characters set up to be the heroic characters are actually revealed to be anti-heroes or worse. And this to me threw out much of the power of the initial concept.
My claim of historical dishonesty is that Winterson seems to not understand that for the whole saga of women being accused of witchcraft to hold power, it needs to be shown that they were women with certain rituals that were claimed as witchcraft but lacked witch 'magick' to them. That the superstitions of the people around them led to their being called witches, not that they actually are witches and dabbled in actual 'magick'.
The issue is, that in attempting to consider such things as real 'magick' and in revealing the insidious nature of some of her characters, Winterson creates a work of fiction which panders to the more superficial crowd of fantasy readers. She panders to the side which see magical witches and demonic vampires as 'sexy' rather than bleak archetypes for a fallen human condition when greed and desire dominate your soul. It's a shallower, more cosmetic treatment of the issue - a way of writing which sells novels but which counteracts the importance of the historical message.
This historical message is so very important in my eyes because it is a message which we do not get today. I felt that Winterson should have understood better how to write a story against bigotry, fear and falsely acclaiming individuals as witches because in many ways that mirrors what she herself has suffered through in life. I felt that her book should have continued to talk about how individuals in history abused superstition to aid their own causes, yet she turned the novel instead into a pulpier version of what it could have been.
For this reason I've only given the book two stars. It is a well written book, but to me writing is only one part of a novel. Themes are equally as important, because the themes are what remain with the reader after the book has been read. Certainly, quality writing aids the reader in developing eloquent expression, yet it does not help provide character to the soul. Character is developed through themes and unfortunately I felt the themes could have been much better utilised.