With the ghosts of a chance

PRACTICAL MAGIC by Alice Hoffman, Macmillan pounds 15.99
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Alice Hoffman was just 22 when she wrote her debut novel Property Of. Set in the windy ganglands of New York (and, mystifyingly, out of print over here) it's a formidable, sullenly seductive tale of a teenager in thrall to a heroin addict. It explores drugs and those precarious, teenage ideals of "honour" and "cool", but it's also about magic.

Ten novels on and magic - teasingly bound up with love and sex - is an ever more pressing theme in Hoffman's work. Her latest goes all the way, giving us witches and buried bones, bubbling lye potions and edgy, frantic lovers - even an actual disappearing white rabbit, comfortingly named Buddy.

It's a whole new narrative, but the opening chords are still familiar. Sally and Gillian are orphan sisters brought up by their creepy aunts in a house with no clocks and no mirrors and cherrywood mantels which give off "the scene of ripe fruit even in winter". All too tellingly, the girls' parents were having sex when they died - too orgasmic to notice that the house was on fire.

Ironic, then, that "the aunts" create love-spells for a living. Thwarted sweethearts call in at the back door and Sally and Gillian look on with a kind of blase dread as pins are plunged into birds' hearts in the name of Love. Or maybe we should just call it Sex, because Hoffman doesn't go in for easy, pretty stories. The aunts' spells are so successful that the terrified girl from the hardware store is raped "sore inside and out" by her overly spellbound boyfriend.

Naturally, the girls rebel: they both hanker after a "normal life". Gillian - the tearaway blonde one - escapes into a string of unsuccessful marriages. Sally - the "take-charge" dark one - stays at home and cooks nutritious meals, is married and widowed and left to bring up her two fiercely different daughters - one beautiful and feisty, the other sensitive and awkward.

Oppressed by the aunts' witchy house with its "black fence and green- tinted windows", Sally takes her girls off to New York and is having a relatively calm, suburban time when, one stormy night, Gillian turns up with her boyfriend Jimmy dead in the front seat of her Oldsmobile.

Because Jimmy was a violent drunkard - "He knew exactly how to hit a woman, so the marks hardly showed. He knew how to kiss her too, so that her heart began to race and she'd start to think forgiveness with every breath" - and because Gillian "more or less" poisoned him, the two sisters bury the body in the garden and no more is said.

But this is Alice Hoffman and the dead don't rest if they can help it. Neither does nature. Lilacs start springing up all over the place "out of season and overnight, in a single exquisite rush", and this causes a spectacular stir in the neighbourhood.

As if this weren't enough, Jimmy's ghost starts to lounge menacingly around the garden. And when a toad comes into the kitchen and pukes up the dead man's silver knuckleduster, and the toe of a red cowboy boot starts to nose its way out of the soil beneath the lilac bush, the family know they're in trouble.

It must be a tribute to Hoffman's mastery of atmosphere and narrative nuance that all of this probably comes over as both cute and far-fetched in the retelling. But her prose is always daringly headstrong, deliberately sensuous, though at its best when tempered - as it mostly is - by an ebullient sense of modern America, of social and sexual realism. This is no pointless fantasy world - more the real world made even more so, small-town life viewed slightly, sexily askew. Hoffman's taste for spells, her penchant for inventing lavish supernatural activity, remains interesting because of the light it casts on the ordinary, helpless, mortal spirit.

Love is the prime mover, the overriding force. When Gary the homicide investigator falls for Sally, he feels "as if someone has ripped off the top of his head and hooked a piece of his soul". In fact, in Hoffman's work, sexual energy infests and warps the environment in strange, unexpected ways. When Gillian's in love, butter actually melts in the fridge and her dreams are so "scandalous and hot" that her niece, in the bed next to her, wakes confused and aroused. When her pining rejected lover runs in the park, he becomes as familiar to the ducks as "twilight or cubed white bread".

Hoffman writes about physical desire and arousal with real imaginative honesty. It's easy for an author to have fun describing the sex act; she goes much further, examining also the dark, difficult, embarrassing forces which direct most human lives. "It's amazing, the places love will carry you," thinks Gillian. "It's astonishing to discover just how far you're willing to go."

Hoffman uses magic as a way into human nature, as a means of scrutinising souls, of inspecting their potential for transformation. I admire her apparently effortless, bursting, lyrical energy, but more than anything I admire her emotional daring.