The Witch of Exmoor

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Overview

Margaret Drabble's eagerly awaited novel, her first in five years, tells of a contemporary family whose comfortable, ordered lives are upended by chaotic events.

On a midsummer's evening in Hampshire, England, deep in a countryside washed in mauve pink and roses in bloom, the Palmer family is playing a dinner party game: what kind of society would you accept without knowing your place in it? But the question of justice gives way to the more pressing problem of the Palmer's ...

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Overview

Margaret Drabble's eagerly awaited novel, her first in five years, tells of a contemporary family whose comfortable, ordered lives are upended by chaotic events.

On a midsummer's evening in Hampshire, England, deep in a countryside washed in mauve pink and roses in bloom, the Palmer family is playing a dinner party game: what kind of society would you accept without knowing your place in it? But the question of justice gives way to the more pressing problem of the Palmer's eccentric mother, Frieda, an eminent author and thinker who has fled them and her old life to take up residence in a remote, crumbling old hotel by the sea in Exmoor. To her three children, Daniel, Rosemary, and Gogo, Frieda has always been a powerful and puzzling figure. What is next for this mother of theirs, who late in life developed a passion for Wagnerian opera, abandoned her Saab in a traffic jam, and sued Her Majesty's government over tax returns? What is she plotting now? What will she do with her money? Will she favor her half-Guyanese grandson over her own children? Why has she disappeared? Has the dark spirit of Exmoor finally driven her mad?M

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
Drabble skewers the egotism of her characters and of the society they inhabit with subtle humor and elegant psychological analysis.
Jo-Ann Mort

Why haven't British novelists exposed the inequities of post-Thatcherite England as Dickens challenged the injustices of Victorian times? That's the question Margaret Drabble posed last year in the British Observer, and The Witch of Exmoor, with its marked Dickensian overtones, appears to be Drabble's attempt to do just that.

The Witch of Exmoor is about what happens to the squabbling Haxby-Palmer clan when its matriarch, Frieda Haxby-Palmer -- the renowned author of a book titled "The Making of War" -- very suddenly decides to sell the family house and move to an isolated, ramshackle hotel on England's southwest coast. There she will presumably write her memoirs. That's also where, her heirs soon discover, she has significantly rewritten her will. The Dickensian overtones that Drabble injects include not only the theme of inheritance, but Frieda herself -- she's a Mrs. Havisham-like character who seems drawn, quite endearingly, from the pages of Great Expectations.

rom the first sentence of this rich yet rather raw novel, Drabble establishes a 19th century-style omniscient narrator for her contemporary tale, and her ominous warning -- "Let them have everything that is pleasant" -- puts you on notice that something decidedly unpleasant is certain to happen. The Haxby-Palmer offspring inhabit a familiar Drabble terrain. Daniel and his sisters Rosemary and Gogo live in trendy London neighborhoods or the Hampshire countryside; they summer in Tuscany or the South of France and they vote Labor. Gogo's husband, David, runs as a Labor MP. This bunch is mostly well-meaning, but not as likable as you might expect. Drabble successfully chips away at the family's façade to show how the siblings, who appeared close enough to weekend and vacation together, become consumed with suspicion and ill will after they realize that their inheritance may have shifted out from under them.

David, a blending of "East and West," seems to hold the key to the future; Drabble clearly feels that England's fate in the next millennium will be determined by a society composed of immigrants from former British colonies. Drabble also interweaves a theme about the difficulty of creating a just society, though its entry into the plot is less successful than the est of the book. David the Laborite says: "In practice, it's very difficult to design a society in which there's no bottom of the heap." Yet he tries through his political deeds, and he is aided by a bequest from Frieda. The Witch of Exmoor appeared in England before the Labor Party victory; doubtless, the fictional David would now be serving in Tony Blair's government. Indeed, her fictional MP would have his chance to try to make an unjust society more just, but Drabble appears to question how successful he could be at such an effort, largely because of the blinders worn by his relatives, who refuse to see the wreckage all around them. -- Salon

Elle
Part social satire, part thriller, and entirely clever.
Entertainment Weekly
Literary magic.
Entertainment Weekly
Literary magic.
Kirkus Reviews
A startling, mordantly funny portrait of contemporary Britain, and Drabble's best and most assured novel in years. At the heart of the action is Frieda Palmer, the increasingly eccentric matriarch of an eminently successful family. Frieda has gained fame for her eloquent, prophetic works on feminism (including The Matriarchy of War); her children are also variously successful: Gogo is a much-in-demand neurologist, married to an up-and-coming liberal politician; Rosemary is an influential figure in arts funding; and Daniel is a quietly accomplished barrister. The three, their spouses, and their children have gathered, as the story begins, to discuss what, if anything, can be done with their intemperate mother. She has recently engaged in a buffoonish battle with the government over taxes. And she has sold the family house, and bought a rambling, shabby hotel in Exmoor, on a cliff above the sea, where she lives alone. What will she do next? What of their reputations? And what of their inheritance? Their efforts to somehow assert control over Frieda's life eventually draw in their own children (including the free-spirited Emily, Daniel's daughter, and the brilliant, somber young Ben, Gogo's son) and set in motion a variety of subplots revealing the quiet hypocrisies at the heart of many of these lives and offering, in the person of Frieda, one of the more complex and original of Drabble's creations. A zestful, angry figure, fighting age, and struggling to come to terms with the horrific secret concerning her own marriage that she has long suppressed, Frieda, often fierce, arouses exasperation and affection in equal measure. This droll riff on King Lear manages to be both anintriguing portrait of a difficult woman and a sustained lampoon on the self-absorbed, righteous behavior of the British elite, related in prose of sustained vigor. Satire and melodrama, nicely mixed, and a thoroughly satisfying entertainment.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156006040
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1 Harvest Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,235,844
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 7.84 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble

MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth , and The Needle's Eye , among other novels. For her contributions to contemporary English literature, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.

Biography

With her shrewd, mannered descriptions and dialogue, Drabble can say a lot. Take this line from The Witch of Exmoor: "He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin." The British author, who has been writing surprising and clever novels for some 40 years, tends to remain focused on female protagonists; but she is inventive when it comes to narration, sometimes where you least expect it. The Witch of Exmoor, for example, has a wry, omniscient narrator who begins with a godlike, "Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant." In 2002's The Seven Sisters, the first section of the book is the main character's (often self-critical) computer diary, and unexpected shifts in perspective follow.

Her variations in narrative structure and her injection of political and social commentary into her works makes Drabble a particularly challenging and interesting writer. Her return to fiction after a seven-year gap, 1987's The Radiant Way, became a trilogy (completed by A Natural Curiosity and Gates of Ivory) that veered slightly into international adventure territory. Ivory, for example, flips between psychiatrist Liz Headleand (one of the three women first featured in The Radiant Way) and the writer friend for whom she is searching, a man who has gone to Cambodia for research. Unfortunately, several of Drabble's early and highly praised novels (including the first two books of the aforementioned trilogy) are out of print in the U.S. It's a shame, because those books are the ones that established Drabble as an important writer, and are the templates for Drabble's independent, intelligent heroines on the road to self-discovery.

A few critics who have been admirers of Drabble's since she began writing in the 1960s have gone sour on the author in her later years. On the release of The Witches of Exmoor, a Toronto Sun critic wrote, "I am so sad and sorry to report that Margaret Drabble, once one of the best novelists on earth, is past her best," calling the novel a "rehash." Of 2002's The Seven Sisters, the story of middle-aged divorcee Candida Wilton's experiences as a newly single woman, a critic for Britain's Observer lamented the book's unconventional and somewhat cagey approach toward the end. "Altogether, Candida is alive enough that the novel's truncations ache like phantom limbs," the critic wrote. "The realised heroines of Drabble's magnificent books from the 1960s or 1970s would say to Candida, Tell me what it is like to be you."

Ultimately, part of the push and shove over Drabble's work comes down to a tension between literary invention and reader satisfaction; she has often been criticized for not caring enough about her characters to make them engaging. The New York Times wrote of The Gates of Ivory, "It's about politics and literature, terrorism and atrocities, love and life and death.... But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply." However, consider The Nation's take: "What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works -- it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized."

Good To Know

Possession author A. S. Byatt is Drabble's older sister. There was too much competition," Byatt says about her childhood relationship with her sister. "We didn't get on."

Drabble was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company after she graduated from college, and was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave; she married fellow RSC actor Clive Swift in 1960. The two divorced in 1975, and Drabble later married biographer Michael Holroyd.

Also a scholarly writer of biography and nonfiction, Drabble has written several forewords to editions of Jane Austen's work as well as lives of novelists Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. The nonfiction includes a 1990 analysis and critique of property law, Safe as Houses.

Drabble has also written several plays including Laura, Isadora, and Bird of Paradise. She adapted her novel The Millstone as the 1969 film A Touch of Love.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 5, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      Cambridge University

First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

THE VALE OF IGNORANCE

Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant. The windows are open on to the terrace and the lawn, and drooping bunches of wisteria deepen from a washed mauve pink to purple. The roses are in bloom.

The meal is drawing to a close. The bowl of fruit has been plundered. A hacked yet noble slab of Cheddar cheese, a flattening liquid disc of Brie circulate slowly on a heavy round grey veined marble slab. The salad wilts a little in its various oils. There are crumbs and stains on the dark pink loose-woven cloth. Dishes are stacked high by the Aga, in full view, should one wish to look that way, for this is a farmhouse dining-room, and it is open plan, on the twentieth-century, more or less servantless model. The painted moss-green walls glow in the fading light. This is England, but Spain and Italy have coloured the dishes and displayed their bowls and plates upon the wooden dresser, adding their cobalt Mediterranean blues and their hot mustard yellows. The wine is French, and the precociously rosy apples are from New Zealand, but the bread was baked here this afternoon, and the gems of lettuces and the dark red veined oak leaves and the splinters of chive are from the garden. Are the grapes from South Africa? It is hard to tell. Let us say that we are in England, in Hampshire, and that we approach, but not too closely, and not it would seem very rapidly, the end of the twentieth century.

Much bread has been baked by Patsy Palmer over the weekend, for her family and guests are in good appetite. They have been walking, swimming, playing tennis. They work hard during the week, in their different ways, and now they are taking their ease and eating slice after slice of solid brown bread. They have already devoured spinach soup and two large free-range chickens and a platter of roast potatoes garnished with rosemary. Now they eat bread, and cheese, and nibble at grapes, and talk.

This is the home of Daniel and Patsy Palmer. Daniel is that light-haired, skinny, freckled chap who is absent-mindedly refilling his own glass from a bottle of claret. He looks lean, hungry and athletic of mind and body, and is wearing jeans, although he must be in his forties. An academic, a civil servant, a lawyer, a diplomat? Something like that. His wife Patsy is plumper than he, though by no means yet fat, and she also is wearing jeans, and above them a navy-blue Chinese silk shirt and an apron with a pattern of ducks upon it. Her hair is short and brown and slightly fluffy. She could be a headmistress, or a gynaecologist, or a magistrate. And those two young people must be their children, for the family resemblance is strong, and their manner at table is offhand and familiar -- and in young Simon's case verging on the rude. Emily looks like her father; her hair is a clear red-gold, her eyes a Nordic blue. Simon, too, resembles his father in colouring, and his nose is sharp.

He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin.

The other women at table are also related to their host Daniel. They are his sisters. You can see that at a glance. Both born Palmer, they are Palmer no longer, for both have married, and both belong to the generation of women who took their husbands' names. Thus Rosemary is now Rosemary Herz, and Gogo (as Grace is known within the family) is Gogo D'Anger. Both the younger Palmers have married out.

Rosemary is the beauty of the family, or so it has always been said, and there is a residue of truth in the saying. Her hair is a light pinkish gold, slightly paler than her niece Emily's, and assisted in tint by her hairdresser. (She is the only woman in the room to give evidence of regular visits to a hairdresser.) Her eyes, like Daniel's, are a challenging intellectual blue. She is the most becomingly dressed woman at the table, for she has changed, after tennis, into a pale lilac soft cotton dress (an interesting choice of colour, but effective) and added some green glass beads to dangle into her freckle-dusted cleavage. Rosemary has style. She could be an actress, or a television presenter, or a journalist. Her husband, Nathan, is rather a surprise. He is short and squat and fat and hairy and balding and very ugly. She wears him with pride, like a fashion accessory.

Rosemary and Nathan have two children. They have gone upstairs to the bunk room to watch TV or play some computer game. Or so their parents assume.

Gogo is the middle daughter. She is taller than Rosemary and a little heavier in build. (Does Rosemary watch her diet? Probably, though one would not think so from the amount she has eaten this evening.) Gogo's hair, which had been family fair at birth, had turned darker in her teens, as though making a protest against its powerful and problematic heritage, and it is now a dull brown; she wears it tied back with a scarf, for she says that the feel of it upon her brow annoys her. This habit gives her a slightly Bohemian appearance, which she accentuates with bright colours -- on this occasion, a bold shirt of geometric purple and red, worn over a long orange skirt -- but she counteracts this gypsy look with an expression of forbidding severity. She could be called handsome, but not beautiful. She has the Palmer nose. One would not like to speculate upon Gogo's profession, for fear of reprimand or ridicule if proved wrong. (That she has a profession is manifest.)

Her husband, David, in contrast, has a most engaging manner, as though to compensate for Gogo's austerity. He is Guyanese, and he is as handsome as Nathan is ugly. One could gaze at him with pleasure for hours, and many do. He and Nathan get on well. They do not often meet, but when they do they like to talk. They form an alliance against the Anglo-Saxons.

Gogo and David have only one child. He is upstairs, playing or watching TV with his cousins. Or doing whatever it is that children of that age do.

David and Nathan are talking now. This weekend was set up as a family conclave, but David and Nathan agree that they cannot spend all their time playing Unhappy Families. They have already spent much of the weekend talking about the problem -- in the pool, on the tennis court, walking in the shrubbery, chopping parsley -- and now it is their turn, at least for a brief respite, to talk about something else. The Palmers, tacitly, agree. They too have had enough, for the moment, of what to do about Mother. They are refreshed, by the claret and the roast potatoes. They are willing to play David's game, which he says is called `The Veil of Ignorance'.

He has tried to explain it to them in simple terms, but some of them are not very quick -- or perhaps they are too quick by half, for they keep interrupting him and going off at tangents and having ideas of their own. They are not as docile as his one-time students. But then, they have no examinations to pass, and for them nothing hangs upon the game itself, or upon his approval.

It is only a game. Gogo knows the game already, has known it for years, so she sits back, smiling her sardonic smile, as David politely and charmingly persists.

`No, it's not a question of imagining a Utopia,' he repeats. `It's more a question of unimagining everything that you are, and then working out the kind of society which you would be willing to accept if you didn't in advance know your own place in it. If you knew you would have no special privileges or bargaining powers. It's a much more modest proposal than a Utopia. All you have to imagine is that in the original position of choice you don't know who you are or where you stand -- you don't know if you're rich or poor, able or disabled, clever or mentally subnormal, plain or beautiful, male or female, black or white, strong or weak. You don't know if you're an optimist or a pessimist, a risk-taker or a traditionalist, fertile or infertile, straight or gay. Nor do you know if the society itself is going to be rich or poor -- pre-industrial, technologically developed, rapidly developing, booming, declining. You can't expect to be yourself, nor can you expect society to be anything you recognize. Your eyes are veiled by the veil of ignorance. And from this position you have to examine the first principles of justice,and decide what they are. If you cling to any trace of your existing self you will find yourself constructing a theory of justice and a society that favour you.'

`As these do us,' murmurs Emily, but nobody hears her.

`Let me get this straight,' says Patsy, who has been trying to concentrate through distractions about bread provision (could they really finish off yet another loaf? -- she was damned if she was going to bake at midnight, and she has a busy day on Sunday). `Tell me again, David. You mean I've got to construct a society in which I would be willing to take my place as the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low?'

`Well,' says David. `It's not the whole of the society you have to construct, it's more the principles on which it is founded.'

(`I can't see the difference,' murmurs Emily.)

`You could decide', continues David, `that a small contingent of the very poor are necessary for the proper functioning of society, and that it would just be bad luck -- a sort of social sacrifice -- if you ended up as one of them. It would be quite hard to argue, I think, that a numerically overwhelming mass of the very poor can constitute a just society, but it certainly has been argued.'

(`Not to say practiced,' murmurs Emily.)

`I don't see a problem,' says Patsy. `I can't see how anyone can ever vote for anything other than a society in which there's no possibility whatsoever, however numerically remote, of ending up at the very nasty bottom of a heap. I know I'd end up at the bottom of the heap if there was a bottom. I've never had any luck at gambling. So I'd prefer a nice safe foolproof society, please, where even if I pulled the shortest straw I could still survive quite comfortably. In fact I'd like a society without a bottom of the heap at all. Would that be a practical possibility? Would the rules of the game permit it? Would the earth's resources permit it?'

`In practice, it's very difficult to design a society in which there's no bottom of the heap. Millions have died for it, but no country on earth has managed it,' replies David, smiling his civil, engaging, disarming smile.

`Really? It sounds so little to ask. Such a modest request.'

`You always think you're being modest, Ma,' says Simon. `It's one of your most persistent delusions.' (He speaks more sharply than his sister, with a more unpleasant edge, but Patsy chooses to ignore him.)

`What I want to know is this,' says Rosemary. `If it were all worked out, according to David's rules -- the universal principles of justice and all that -- would anyone dare to press the button and make it happen? If there were a button to press, would anyone press it? Would anyone be willing to rip off the veil and open his eyes in the brave new world of Social Justice? Would one risk all, if one were a professor at Harvard instead of a man in a cardboard box?'

(The man from the attic, who has crept silently down the backstairs to help himself to a banana from the larder, listens intently for the answer.)

`Of course one wouldn't dare,' says Daniel Palmer. `It would mean giving up all this.' He gestures widely and with a lifted eyebrow, perhaps of dissociation, at his lawns, his Aga, his wife, his dissenting children, his deliquescent Brie, his three empty bottles. `I like all this. I've worked hard for this. Years of my life have gone into all this. Years of Patsy's life have gone into it. I want to see the bay tree reach six foot. Slow growth. You know, slow growth. Why should I press a button and risk losing all of this?'

`You might not lose it,' says his daughter Emily more forwardly, and this time they are obliged to listen. `You could', pursues Emily, `redesign society exactly as it is. Stone by stone, leaf by leaf. You could work out a theory of justice that said it was proper and necessary for the whole of society that there should be such a person as you in such a house as this, and then you could press the button. And you might end up right here, having this very same conversation.'

`The odds against that', says her father, `are about sixty million to one.'

`So you admit', says Emily, `that there's no justice -- no justification -- for our living in this house?'

`None whatsoever,' says Daniel. `I gave up any hope of any kind of general social justice years and years ago. What I have, I hold. That's my motto.'

`It's a pity', says Simon, `that we can't set up a controlled experiment. Let David work out what he thinks would be really fair -- and then try it for just a year. Then we could press another button and all scamper back home. If we didn't like it. Which I don't suppose most of us here would.'

`You might die in the experiment. A year's a long time,' says Emily.

`You might die in real life,' says Simon. His tone is not friendly.

`If there were a button,' says Rosemary, `would you wake up in this new world at the same age as you were when you pressed it? Or might you find yourself a newborn baby, or an old person in a geriatric ward? Does the original position make us all the same age, or not?'

`I think you're taking it too literally,' says David, momentarily distracted by the Elgin Marbles, the concept of historical property, and the sugar canes of Guyana. `It's only a philosophical concept. A hypothesis. There isn't any button.'

`I take everything literally,' says Rosemary, `even philosophy.'

`And would you wake up', asks Simon, refusing to be diverted, `with all the memories of a person who had been brought up in the new society? Would they have been implanted, like in that robot movie? So that you could remember nothing else?'

`You would wake up', says David, teasingly, impressively, `with the memories of a person who has been born into and lived in a society run on the principles of fairness and justice.'

`Wow!' says Emily. `That is science fiction.'

`Well,' says easy-going Nathan, `you can count on me to press your button. Any old button. I'd give it a whirl. I can't be bothered to do the redesigning from the first principles bit myself. I'll leave that to the professionals. I'll leave it to my distinguished brother-in-law. I think I can trust him not to introduce a tyranny or a totalitarian state or an elective monarchy or the murder of the first-born or the culling of anyone whose first name begins with an N. I'll just take my chance with whatever David and his chums suggest. The odds are I'd end up being someone much nicer than me in an even nicer place. I'd take a gamble.'

`He's a terrible gambler,' says Rosemary, leaning over proudly to pat his hairy hand. `You should have seen him in the casino at Venice. All his chips on the table.'

`Really?' says Patsy. `I'm surprised. You are a dark horse, Nathan.'

`I like dark horses and long odds,' says Nathan. `And poker, and backgammon. But I don't get much time for them these days. Rosie doesn't like it, do you, Rosie?'

Husband and wife smile at one another, in not quite convincing collusion. Nathan takes his hand away from Rosemary's, and fishes in his pocket for a crumpled packet of cigarettes.

`Do you mind, Patsy?' he asks. `I'll go in to the garden if you like.'

Patsy shakes her head, and reaches behind to the dresser for a saucer to serve as an ashtray.

`Smoking is gambling,' says Emily, staring coolly at her uncle. `It's just a question of luck.'

`A question of luck as to when or whether I develop the fatal cough? Yes, I suppose you're right.'

`In the just society,' asks Emily, turning back to David, `would there be any smoking areas? Or would it be altogether forbidden? Would there be sexual reproduction? Would there be illness and death?'

`Smoking areas could be agreed. Or not. But the other things would have to carry on as now, I'm afraid. Otherwise you would end up with a society without anything recognizable as human beings at all.'

`How nice,' says Emily, still staring hard at David.

`That might be the only way,' says Simon. `You could devise this perfectly just system, but then human beings would come along and mess it all up. Much better to redesign the human beings.'

`What a gloomy couple you are,' says David, smiling his charming televisual smile.

`I'm not gloomy,' says Emily. `Simon may be, but I'm not. I'm just being radical. I mean you might as well go back to the original plan. If you're going to have an original position, it might as well be really original.'

David is not sure whether she is being quite clever or very stupid. The evening grows late: surely it is time these teenagers went to bed? His own son had politely vanished hours ago, like the good boy he is.

`A society without human beings', says Daniel gravely, `is a radical concept.' Patsy permits herself to snigger.

`A society without human beings', says Gogo, breaking her silence, `is exactly what she seems to have designed for herself.'

Nathan and David and Patsy quickly exchange guilty glances: so the game of Unhappy Families is back upon the table. David has done his best to distract, but he has failed. The Palmers are relentless. They could bring any topic home. They could lasso conversations about gardening, or the cinema, or the Hubble telescope, or the sugar industry, or Guyanese politics, or the slave-trade, and bring them home to graze about their mother.

`I mean, for God's sake,' says Gogo. A long pause follows. She has the floor. `The Witch of Exmoor,' she says, echoing a phrase that Rosemary has tried out on her over their picnic lunch on the lawn.

`It just isn't habitable,' continues Rosemary. `She can't go on living there. At her age. It's impossible. We all thought the Mausoleum was bad enough. This is a thousand times worse. At least the Mausoleum was in reach of public transport. Well, almost. I think Daniel ought to go and have a look. Show a bit of masculine authority.'

Daniel smiles his thin, dry, bleached smile. His spare face is briefly irradiated by a sad, mocking, uncertain light. His sisters mocked him much.

`Describe it again, Rosie,' he says. He enjoys her recital. He might as well take pleasure from it.

`Well,' says Rosemary. `To begin with, it's vast. And it's hideous. And it's uninhabitable. And what electricity there is keeps going off. And it's about to fall into the sea.'

`It's literally on the edge of the sea?'

`On the very edge. Perched. And the drive -- well, you can't really call it a drive. It's hardly even a track. It's more or less impassable. Deep ruts. Great pot-holes. Stuff growing out of the hedges. It was bad enough getting down it in the spring. God knows what it's like in winter. And it's four hours from London even if you put your foot down all the way along the motorway. And then all those miles over the moor. There's a sign, written on a piece of cardboard. I stopped to read it. It said BEWARE OF VIPERS BREEDING.'

It is the first time they have heard this detail: they respond with suitable admiration.

`Did it mean it literally? Vipers, literally vipers?'

`I should think so. It looked real snake country to me. You could feel them round about. You know, roots and bracken. I don't know what she thinks she's doing there. She's got no connection with that part of the country at all. If she wants to go native why doesn't she go back to Lincolnshire where she says she came from? Or Sweden, come to that?'

`She always said she wanted to live in the country,' says Daniel.

`Yes, but why choose Exmoor? It can't mean anything to her.'

`Hampshire means nothing to me,' says Daniel. `But I happen to like it here. I don't see why she shouldn't live on Exmoor if she wants.'

`In a derelict hotel?'

`I thought you said it was a folly.'

`It's hard to know what it is. It's enormous. She only lives in a bit of it.'

`And it's a four-hour drive?'

`At least. It was just over 200 miles on the clock, but the last 60 are a nightmare. And I can tell you it's not very nice to drive for four hours and then have the door more or less slammed in your face.'

Daniel and Gogo like this bit best.

`So she didn't want you to come in?'

`Not really. She kept me out there in this terrible overgrown courtyard. Nettles everywhere. And it was pissing with rain. She had her back to the door as though she was guarding something. I had to say I was dying for a pee before she'd let me in. And then she said, why didn't you stop a bit earlier and pee in the hedge?'

They all laugh at this sally, and not for the first time.

`What was the lavatory like?' inquires Emily, freshly.

`Well, it was clean. But sort of basic. No lavatory seat, for example. Nothing extra. Except spiders. Those long leggy ones. Lots of them.'

`Her familiars,' says Gogo.

`No pot plants, no toilet rolls, no little cane tables, no volumes of verse?'

`There was a toilet roll, but God it was damp. The damp there is a killer.'

`And she gave you a slice of corned beef,' prompts Gogo.

`Yes, a slice of corned beef. And a piece of soggy Ryvita. It tasted a thousand years old. There's a cold like mildew down there. It bites. It's full of microbes. Full of fungus spores. It fills the lungs. I can't describe how horribly cold it was. And this was mid-May.'

`She wasn't expecting you,' ventures Patsy in extenuation.

`How could she be expecting anyone if she won't have a telephone?' returns Rosemary.

`Perhaps she really doesn't want to see us,' says Daniel. (This is the kind of thing he says.)

`Well,' says Rosemary, with gravitas, `that would seem to be the message. She says she doesn't want to see anyone. She says she's too busy. I said busy doing what, and she said she was busy being a recluse. She said it was a full-time job.'

They all laugh, and there is a respect in their laughter, for Frieda has turned the tables on them this time. They are surrounded by friends who complain at length of the burden of visiting their aged relatives, their aunts with Alzheimer's, their fathers grumpy with cancer or heart conditions or gout, their mothers whining of the treacheries of the past: none of them has a mother who does not want to see them. It is against the natural order. What have they done to earn such rejection? Frieda has removed herself from their concern and set off into the unknown. They had seen trouble coming a year or more ago, when she suddenly decided to sell the family home and all that was in it, but they had not expected a removal as dramatic as this. She had sold the big house in Romley (optimistically and falsely described by the estate agents as `on the borders of Stoke Newington') and purchased a dilapidated thirty-room Victorian castle by the sea.

`But you said she looked well enough,' says Daniel.

`Oh, yes, she looks well enough. I think she's lost weight. Well, one where the nearest shop is.'

`I don't see how we can intervene,' says Daniel, who has no wish to be sent off to Exmoor as family delegate. `She's not doing any harm up there, is she?'

`Not to us,' says Gogo. `She can't harm us any more. She's done her worst.'

`I wouldn't be so sure,' says Daniel, rethinking his position as a new light strikes him. `She's only in her sixties.'

`I'm not so sure either,' says Rosemary. `I told you what she said about remaking her will? She said she was going to reallocate her posthumous copyrights. Is she allowed to do that?'

`Of course she is,' says David D'Anger, roused by this brazen assertion of family rights of interest in family money. `She can do what she wants with them.'

The three Palmers turn their eyes upon him, the dark intruder.

`Perhaps you'd better go and see her and find out what she's really up to,' says Rosemary. `She'd listen to you, David. She favours you.'

`I'd go,' says David. `I'd go, in the autumn. If you thought it was a good idea.'

His ready acquiescence both pleases and disquiets them. What does David D'Anger hope to gain from a trip to the West Country? There can be nothing to interest him there. Westminster, the West Indies and West Yorkshire, fair enough, he has interests in all of those -- but the West Country, surely not?

`You won't like it there,' says Rosemary. `You should have seen her face, when she saw me getting out of the car. You may laugh, but it wasn't very funny.'

`I'm not laughing,' says Daniel.

`Neither am I,' says Gogo.

`It's no laughing matter,' says Rosemary.

`Money is money,' says Nathan solemnly, provocatively. `You don't want her leaving it all to pay off the National Debt, do you?'

`I'm telling you,' says Rosemary, `that building's like a black hole. You don't believe me. It's worse than any of you imagine. It'll probably slide down the cliff and into the sea. And then where will we be?'

Although it is no laughing matter, the thought of their mother sliding into the sea, on a dark night, has its comic aspects. They elaborate, and I am sorry to say that they laugh. And, in conclusion, it is agreed that David and Gogo, come the autumn, will risk the journey and the mildew and the corned beef. They will take Benjamin as peacemaker, they volunteer. How will she be able to alienate herself and her fortune from her own children and grandchildren? (If Daniel and Rosemary have suspicions about this plan, they keep them to themselves.)

Upstairs, in the bunk room, the youngest of those grandchildren, Jessica and Jonathan Herz, are playing with the fast-forward button on one of the house's several video machines. They are trying to find the bit with the child-eating zombies, but they are not trying very seriously: they are waiting, in a state of heightened excitement, for their cousin Benjamin D'Anger to come back from his bedroom with the Game. Many a video nasty have they watched up there in the nursery, for their aunt Patsy Palmer has a professional interest in video nasties and no interest whatsoever in domestic censorship. But none of the videos is anything like as frightening, exciting, wicked and seductive as the Power Game. Jessica and Jon love coming to stay with Uncle Daniel and Aunt Patsy at the Old Farm when Ben is there, for Ben invented the Power Game and they cannot play it without him. He is the Master of the Game, and they wait for him in a slightly fevered anticipation. Will it be as exciting as it was last time? Will Ben let them change roles this time? Will he have made up more of the story, as he promised? He has been mysterious about it all day, for it is a late and secret game, and it has to wait for a certain hour of the night -- tonight he had dictated that it should be ten thirty. The minutes have flicked by on the video clock, and now they wait, sitting on the floor in their pyjamas, round the space they have cleared. (They have built a wall of video boxes, in preparation. It is the city wall.)

And here comes Ben, the divine, the lanky, the dark boy. Ben D'Anger glows with darkness. He wears a yellow night-shirt, and he carries in his arms the large box called Decapolis which holds the Game. Jessica (who is indifferent pale and freckled) wets her lips and tugs at the elasticated waist of her pyjamas. Jon sucks a dark ringlet as he sits, cross-legged, bespectacled, alert, the braces on his teeth glinting in the dimmed light. Ben stands there for a moment, with his arms around Decapolis. It looks innocent: a large cardboard box which once held several dozen tins of dog food, for the dull Dalmatian of the house. He lowers it, ceremoniously. The Herz children silently ask him if, in their month's absence, it has been tampered with. They need no words. He shakes his head. He needs no words. It is intact. Emily has appointed herself its guardian. Emily keeps it safe in her bedroom. It lies in the bottom of her wardrobe, and Patsy is too busy or too lazy to disturb it. Emily is proud to be in collusion, though she has never seen the Game.

Now they begin to unpack its treasures, and lay them out within the video city. Their co-operation is unspoken, intense, complete. First they range the old wooden soldiers salvaged by Daniel from Grandma Frieda's house in Romley. They are handmade period pieces from a bygone age, dating from an unknown childhood. Scraps of faded colour cling to them. Then they line the walls of the video city with the little white plaster busts of the unpainted Rajputani riflemen, lovingly made by a great-great-uncle on the Palmer side who had served long years with the riflemen in India. Then they lay down the pieces of blue ribbon that represent the three great rivers, the Oronoque, the Essequibo and the Demerara, and plant by them the realistic little educational plastic trees of oak and cedar and palm and fig and ebony, and arrange the farmyard animals and the cattle. The scale is bizarre, but that is one of the peculiar thrills of creation. They erect the house called Eldorado, the house called Cayenne, and they lay out the Island of the Dead. Decapolis is a four-cornered city: three of the houses are fortified and occupied, and the fourth is called the Siege House of Hope and Despair. Ben will allot them each a fortress within this small kingdom, and then the game can begin.

It takes nearly half an hour to arrange the site to Ben's satisfaction. He places a lion on a wall, a wolf in a garden, and floats innocent ducks upon the mirror-lake. The materials are heterogeneous -- wood, metal, plastic, fabric. There are no prehistoric monsters, for Ben has banned them -- they are, he says to Jon and Jessica, banal. `Banal' is currently his favourite word. Nor will he admit space monsters. `Everything must be of the earth,' he insists seriously. Otherwise it will not work.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with the Palmers and their in-laws playing David D'Anger's game, "The Veil of Ignorance." Why does their participation in this game seem ironic as we come to know them better? Do all of the tragedies that later befall the family stem from ignorance or bad luck?

2. David's son Benjamin has created Decapolis, a game of death and destruction. What do we learn about Benjamin from this game? Does he really have supernatural power or just a good imagination?

3. Are we supposed to read The Witch of Exmoor as a modern cautionary tale? What aspects of Western society do you think the author is specifically cautioning us about?

4. Do you think that families like the Palmers, Herzes, and D'Angers really exist or is their dysfunction exaggerated simply to tell a good story?

5. Is Frieda driven to isolation by an unjust society or her painful past? She serves Bumperburgers to her family to demonstrate her contempt for the society that created them. Yet we later learn that she profits from stock in the company. Is she a hypocrite?

6. In the scene in the afterlife, is Frieda's claim that she had no idea that leaving her estate to Benjamin would ruin him believable? Is she cruel or simply mischievous? What is significant about Frieda, Belle, and Nathan playing "The Veil of Ignorance" in the afterlife?

7. Does David D'Anger ultimately give up wanting to create "The Just Society" or is he finally accepting his own limitations? Why is it significant that David cancels his trip to Guyana and that Will Paine leaves Jamaica?

8. Rosemary and Gogo seem to be transformed by the family's many tragedies. Is redemption really possible foranyone in this family? Is there hope for the next generation of Palmers? Is the ending of The Witch of Exmoor hopeful or is modern society doomed even to an unenlightened afterlife?

Copyright © 1998. Published by Harcourt, Inc.

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