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BOOKS: The discomfort of strangers

Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger Phoenix pounds 16.99
It's not difficult to detect traces of Kate Pullinger's past career as a writer for film and television (she also co-wrote the novel of The Piano with Jane Campion) in her present novel. Highly visual, punctuated by scene-stealing moments with a sparse prose which often seems to be issuing directions to a cast rather than indulging in description for a reader, this is a book destined for the screen if ever there was one.

This, however, is not offered as a criticism. Pullinger's re-working of the apocryphal tale of an out-of-town stranger who causes mayhem in the lives of those around her is brilliantly paced, and its lack of literary pretension helps evoke a genuinely creepy atmosphere around her mysterious heroine, sophisticated and beautiful Agnes Samuel. What begins in hammy Hammer Horror style - Agnes's arrival at the village pub, the "Black Hat" no less, causes a light-bulb to explode, "a shower of sparks falls over the roof of the black hackney cab, fireworks heralding the arrival of Agnes" - soon takes on other dimensions, about the inability to cover up history, how the past will come back, quite literally, to haunt you.

Agnes Samuel is two women - on the one hand, the bewitching young American, newly arrived in the ancient English village of Warboys, and on the other, the frightened young girl condemned in the 16th century by her neighbours the Throckmortons and hanged as a witch. Pullinger skilfully weaves the two Agnes Samuels together -- the present day Agnes marries the impoverished Robert Throckmorton, descendant of her accuser, and immediately sets about making his life a misery. She has an affair with his brother, provokes his sister into suicide, causes mortal strife leading to a murderous rage. Nightly levitations and ghostly whisperings along with a sexually voracious appetite would seem to confirm that Agnes is indeed the young witch, returned for revenge.

That such a plot avoids the merely absurd lies in Pullinger's clever use of multiple perspective - the narrative is divided up into testimonies of the various figures around Agnes, as each tells his or her version of events, with one nameless narrator who occasionally interjects. The condemnation of witches has of course been a famous literary metaphor since Arthur Miller, and here Pullinger uses it to expose our all-too- easily assumed modernity, as the lack of disparity between the villagers of centuries ago, condemning a young girl for events they could not explain, and the present-day inhabitants of Warboys becomes increasingly apparent. As hysteria among the villagers increases, the original condemnation, the words of others looking for someone to blame, is chillingly re-created.

Pullinger's manipulation of the narrative is masterly, raising as many questions as she offers answers. Agnes's own viewpoint is only ever told in flashback, and the narrative's prejudices become clear as history is once more turned into fiction. This is a perfect, gruesome little tale whose superficial creepiness masks our more troubling refuge in the condemnation of strangers and the stories we tell about them.