Book Review: Treats in the magic toyshop

Love spells, strange fires and sexy witches: Judy Cooke detects occult forces in new novels; Come Back, Paddy Riley by Carol Birch Virago, pounds 9.99, 279pp; The Paraffin Child by Stephen Blanchard Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 258pp; Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger Phoenix House, pounds 16.99, 320pp
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The Independent Culture
CAROL BIRCH is a wonderful portrayer of character. Ruefully honest, her heroine in Come Back, Paddy Riley understands that she is pulling her life to pieces yet seems unable to halt the process. Married to an historian, the patient, persistent and credible Charlie Lamb - as much a specialist in his wife's troubled past as he is in 17th-century England - Anita is grateful for being rescued from drifting and drugs. She has two daughters, values her marriage and has learned from experience: "All those intense, romantic, interesting lads, most of them were crap at sex." Nevertheless, when her blue-eyed boy turns up, living on a boat with a sweet young son, Anita finds a sense of irony is not enough. She falls for him.

The crisis this precipitates is unresolved for most of the book as Anita struggles to free herself from a pattern set in her exotic, squalid, richly dramatic childhood. Michael, the interloper, reminds her of black-haired Paddy Riley, the boy who worked on the Hall of Mirrors when her mother, Geraldine, was a mermaid in a summer-season Freak Show.

Geraldine grew up in a travelling family of tinkers and has been a hard act to follow. Loving as well as exploitative, she involved her daughter as a go-between, carrying messages to Paddy. As a young teenager, Anita became fascinated with the clandestine relationship. As an adult, she looks back to its tragic consequences and tries to make better sense of her own dilemma. The values of the circus and academy confront each other in an absorbing story that echoes some of the themes in Angela Carter's fiction. Birch writes extremely well in her own subtle way about the territory they share: the developing sexuality of adolescence, the magic toyshop.

Stephen Blanchard's The Paraffin Child opens with an image of personal despair and broadens into an unresolved state of menace in a northern seaside town. John Drean has lost his daughter, Pearl, and is somehow implicated in her death; when his mother dies too, he collects photos of little Pearl, drenches them in paraffin and reduces them to "black scraps of nothing". Everything confirms his sense of life's absurdity. His 70-year-old father is dying. His sister bullies him. He starts an affair with Enid, who calls herself "a lizard woman, a salamander"; the caravan she lives in is torched.

The stink of paraffin and the glamour of fire becomes increasingly seductive, paralleled by the emotional meltdown of John's estranged wife, Anna. Her mournful letters intercut the narrative and suggest other ways of coping with grief. Although the plot is unsatisfying - I couldn't buy the conspiracy centred on the Gosse family - the psychological portraits are impressive and distressing.

Kate Pullinger's fiction has often explored gothic themes, but never so successfully as in Weird Sister (Phoenix House, pounds 16.99). Tightly structured, beautifully written, it introduces the wildly attractive Agnes Samuel, returning from America to Warboys, the sleepy Fenland village she left years before. About 400 years before - when she was executed with her parents for bewitching the lord of the manor, Robert Throckmorton, and his family.

As much as bitch as witch, the avenging Alice finds the contemporary Throckmortons a pushover. Graeme, a vain bully, spends his dole money on good suits. His own two sons were, in fact, fathered by the younger brother, Robert. Their sister, Jenny, is drip-fed horror stories with Agnes's bedtime visits and taken up to Knightsbridge to spend money on clothes that look awful on her - but great on Agnes.

The family falls a prey to seduction and fear, the old house crumbles, the pub is done over. Meanwhile Robert claims his bride, old man Throckmorton recognises Agnes for what she is but cannot reveal the truth, being a stroke victim. Only Elizabeth, the witch's rival in love, can stop the destruction.

The author's sympathies lie more with Agnes, less with her adversary. Elizabeth has retired from her London life as a therapist, largely because she is depressed by the suicide of a patient.Which of the Throckmortons will take that way out?

Elizabeth's unselfish love for Robert, her childhood sweetheart, is her trump card. Even so, Agnes's charm, and occult abilities, seem certain to triumph. Like a cat, her green eyes can change in anger so that the pupil eclipses the iris. Her hand is cold to the touch; even taxi-drivers submit to her spell. Kate Pullinger has created a thrilling combination of Rebecca and Mrs Danvers.