Publishers Weekly - Publisher's WeeklySet in a 17th-century English village, this formally ambitious novel explores the troubling legacy of a woman executed for witchcraft. Beginning with the villagers' denunciations of Alice Slade, the story alternates between her last hours in prison, where the vicar attempts to extort a confession, and the narratives of Alice's family, neighbors and onetime friends. Wilson, a British author making her American debut, shuttles among these strands to weave a remarkable picture of a community where folklore, superstition and magic compete with Church teaching. Alice's witchcraft renders her an independent power, revered by many (her friend Sarah, for example, whose child she delivers) and even beloved by others (the radical former vicar James Sykes), but eventually the village turns on her just as, in the end, she turns on it. As more than one character says, ``She knew too much.'' Wilson's lean, uncluttered prose evokes this distant era with the earthy resonance of folktales. The compact, spare structure, however, leaves her little room to flesh out relationships and motives, with the result that her work seems more a well-executed set piece than a fullbodied novel. (May)
Library JournalThis unusual historical novel is set during England's civil war of the 17th century. The central character is Alice Slade, an elderly woman hanged for witchcraft. Through a series of flashbacks and vignettes, Wilson reveals the powerful hold Alice exerted over various people in the small village where they lived. Among the characters are Margaret, Alice's massive, unloved daughter; Richard Berkeley, the hapless vicar wrestling to save Alice's soul--and his own; and Sarah Tidbury, an old friend for whom Alice exhibited unusual desires. With brilliant brevity, Wilson captures the psychological profiles of her characters as she lets each one speak his or her part in the unfolding drama. Wilson also sharply etches the brutality of a period of religious strife. Provocative and stimulating, this novel may have some difficulty finding an audience accustomed to more traditional historical fare. Recommended for large fiction collections.-- Dean James, Houston Acad. of Medicine/Texas Medical Ctr. Lib.
Lindsay ThromThe transformation of neighbors and family members from allies into enemies makes civil wars not only particularly nasty but also definitively illustrative of human nature. In the midst of the religious zealotry of England's seventeenth-century civil war, fear, petty jealousy, and self-doubt impel one village's people to turn against the woman to whom they previously resorted for help. Alice Shade is hanged for witchcraft, but really the crime for which she is punished is knowing too much. Her only ally is adjudged mad, but it is his words that strike the reader as only unadorned truth can; e.g., his statement that "the war was fought to abolish tyranny, but it left tyranny untouched, because the worst tyranny is within us." "Malefice" is a historical novel, but the truth about people it reveals is terrifyingly timeless. Wilson masterfully constructs a story about the past that makes readers look at the present and themselves with frightening clarity.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- 1st American ed
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