Trouble under the lilac tree

Kate Atkinson is bewitched by a tale of two sisters; Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman Macmillan, pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
A long time ago Maria Owens came to Massachusetts with "her baby daughter, and a packet of diamonds sewn into the hem of her dress" and not much more. Since then every Owens woman has displayed her inheritance from Maria - a pair of grey eyes and a feeling for the extraordinary that lies just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

The otherworld that always inhabits the fringes of Alice Hoffman's books - the ghosts, the supernatural powers - is allowed a place centre stage in this book. For here are the aunts who can do real magic, who can cast a spell or make up love potions for the women who come to their back door at twilight, because the aunts, who smell "like lavendar and sulphur", can "read desperation a mile away" and are not above sticking pins in the hearts of doves to give some foolish woman what she thinks she wants.

The aunts wear long black skirts and laced leather boots and they're so old "it's impossible to tell their age," but once long ago they were so beautiful that boys killed themselves for love. The aunts bring up orphan sisters, Gillian and Sally, after their parents die. The aunts' ideas on child-rearing are unconventional - "Sally and Gillian were never told to go to bed before midnight or reminded to brush their teeth". But people are afraid of the Owens, they cross their fingers or cross the street in case they get hexed.

Gillian and Sally, "night and day", grow up as different as only sisters can, Sally "as conscientious as Gillian is idle". Gillian runs away and marries several times, preferring the hot dry atmosphere of the desert to the fertile fecundity of Massachusetts, spending her whole life "trying to be as self-sufficient as a stone". Sally becomes a wife, becomes a mother - to another set of Owens sisters, Antonia and Kylie - becomes a widow and decides to leave for somewhere where there's no horse's skull nailed to the fence to warn children away and "where no one pointed when her daughters walked down the street". And for years Sally achieves the normal life she craved, but she should know better: you can leave but you can't let go and you can't take the magic out of an Owens woman.

Then Sally turns up suddenly one night. She's brought her latest beau, Jimmy. He's sitting outside in the Oldsmobile as docile as a lamb for once, "Tall, dark, handsome and dead''. The men in Practical Magic are handsome and good or handsome and bad. Jimmy, with his snakeskin boots and silver ring is "by far the best-looking guy Sally has ever seen, dead or alive" and Jimmy is very, very bad.

They bury Jimmy under the lilac trees at the bottom of the garden, but he won't rest. He keeps on bringing "bad fortune" and hangs around malevolently. The bad magic under the lilacs is a catalyst for change in this long hot summer of "humidity and greenery." Sally finds logic isn't enough and stops denying her emotions. Gillian stops running.

As ever, Hoffman draws a mean adolescent, and Kylie and Antonia are no exception. "Thirteen is a dangerous age. It's the time when a girl can snap, when good can turn to bad for no apparent reason, and you can lose your own child if you're not careful." Sally's girls grow, losing their outer magic, finding their inner magic. Gillian discovers something that every Owens woman before her has probably known, that "there is a progression and a sequence of possibilities when dealing with who a human can and will be."

Like the flashes of lightning that dart through the hot summers of this book, "trouble is just like comes in unannounced and takes over before you've had a chance to reconsider, or even to think". Love is the redemptive force, of course. For Gillian there's Ben, a biology teacher and an amateur magician. For Sally there will be Gary Hallet who wears cowboy boots "coated with dust and is lean and tall like a scarecrow". Unfortunately he's also an investigator with the attorney general's office and is looking for Jimmy.

In the end, the aunts come up trumps, hot-footing it to Sally's house to deal with the "problem" under the lilac. The aunts aren't stupid, they've watched Oprah, they can deal with anything.

Hoffman isn't just Tyler-plus- magic realism, she's a great atmospheric story teller. Her books are full of women who keep on making lasagne and tunafish casserole while around them life dissolves into chaos before it rises up and reforms into a new logic. Her books are a real pleasure - practical magic.